Children of the net: an empirical exploration into the evaluation of Internet content.

Author:Eastin, Matthew S.

Throughout the last decade a primary concern raised by users and providers of Internet content was information credibility. Because the Internet has no government or ethical regulations controlling the majority of its available content, credible online sources are hard to distinguish from less credible sources (Andie, 1997; Eastin, 2001; Fogg, Marshall, Laraki, et al., 2001). A recent report by the Pew Research Center (2004) indicates that 44% of Internet users have created content for the Internet, and only a small portion of them update their content on a regular basis. Moreover, without knowing the exact URL of a needed site, the amount of information offered through keyword searches can make finding a predetermined site difficult as well as increase the likelihood of encountering sites containing false information (Large, Beheshti, & Rahman, 2002). Although filtering software can help eliminate unwanted indecent content, it cannot identify irrelevant and dishonest content.

The challenge of identifying credible information on the Internet should be greater among young users. Children are less knowledgeable about the real world than are adults; as a result, they cannot evaluate the legitimacy of most Internet content by comparing the information to their own experiences. In addition, children cannot easily evaluate multiple pieces of information at once and may get distracted by extraneous information (Dorr, 1986). Although research assessing how and why children seek and evaluate online information has progressed (Valkenburg & Soeters, 2001), the majority is anecdotal. Subsequently, understanding of Internet use as it pertains to children is underdeveloped given the importance it plays in today's digital environment (Livingstone, 2003).

This study explored whether children's perceptions and recall of online information are influenced by the explicit presence of a Web page author, the dynamic presentation of information, and the presence of advertising. The results of this study provide needed baseline data regarding the effects that source presence, dynamic site design, and online advertising have on children.

Evaluating Online Information

Lang's (2000) limited capacity model (LCM) presents a theoretical framework from which researchers can understand how multiple information objects are processed inside a mediated environment. This information processing model was developed from years of research on information processing in cognitive psychology (Eysenck, 1993; Lachman, Lachman, & Butterfield, 1979) as well as several empirical studies conducted by Lang and colleagues (Lang, 1995; Lang & Basil, 1998). Further, although originally designed to examine how television images are processed, it has recently been

applied to online content (Diao & Sundar, 2004; Lang, Borse, Wise, & David, 2002; Sundar, 2000). Thus, although it stands as a model of information processing, its development benefited from years of previous research on how humans perceive, store, and access information. (1) The LCM states that

a person's ability to process information is limited. Processing messages requires mental resources, and people have a limited (and perhaps fixed) pool of mental resources. You can think about one thing, or two, or maybe even seven, at the same time, but eventually all your resources are being used, and the system cannot think yet another thing without letting a previous thought go. (p. 47) The LCM suggests that encoding, storage, and retrieval are all engaged when evaluating mediated information. The encoding process determines what message information will be converted into mental representation. How and what is converted can be controlled or automatic. Controlled encoding requires users to be drawn to content for preset reasons (e.g., goals, external direction), whereas automatic encoding occurs when information attracts a user's attention without external prompting. Once encoded, information is associated and stored with previously held memory. The retrieval process allows the user to move stored information into working memory. According to the LCM, the mental resources available to the user are finite and independently allocated to each of the three processes. Thus, when mental resources allocated to encoding increase, storage and retrieval resource allocation decreases. The finite resources available to users suggest that when resource allocation is imbalanced, memory deficiency occurs.

It is no surprise that children face an even greater challenge when it comes to evaluating information. Cognitively, children are different from adults (Livingstone, 2003; Piaget, 1976). Developmental differences have been found in children's attention, comprehension, and retention of both mediated and nonmediated information. Regardless of the context, children focus on the perceptually salient aspects of stimuli and cannot simultaneously attend to other information (Hayes & Schulze, 1977; Hoffner & Cantor, 1985; Huston & Wright, 1983; Piaget, 1976). In this way, younger children have a decreased cognitive capacity to manage multiple information objects existing within the same message. Wartella and Ettema (1974) offered a similar argument when they investigated children's attention to television commercials.

For instance, in forming impressions of others, children attend to how people look and base their evaluations on those attributes. Similarly, children's attention to a television program is influenced by the appearance of the program such that content with bright colors and music will be looked at and recalled more than content lacking these features (Alwitt, Anderson, Lorch, & Levin, 1980). Collins (1983) has found that young children have difficulty identifying the central, or most important, content in televised programs and instead focus on the story's peripheral but perceptually interesting elements, such as a character's clothing or the colors of the props. In addition, children attend to television content that is understandable to them and look away when programming becomes incomprehensible (Anderson & Lorch, 1983). Finally, many studies have revealed that children lack the skills to properly integrate television scenes together and understand how they are related in time (Collins, 1979).

Given children's tendencies in evaluating both real-world and televised stimuli, it is likely that the Internet will be a more demanding environment for them. For instance, users need to understand and remember the relationships among Web pages and need to continually assess the relevance of information to their initial search goals. As a result, children who have difficulty storing information in memory and inferring relationships among pieces of information may have difficulty evaluating Web pages. Given that Web pages can feature both content and advertisements simultaneously (and perceptually salient elements, such as animation and sound, may accompany either one), children may have trouble identifying relevant content and ignoring peripheral content. In this way, the challenges that television presents may be magnified in an Internet context.

Research investigating how children evaluate online information suggests that younger children do not recognize that some information posted on the Web might be incorrect and should be questioned (Hirsh, 1999; Large & Beheshti, 2000; Schacter, Chung, Gregory, & Dorr, 1998; Watson, 1998). For example, from interviews conducted while 9 eighth-grade students explored Internet-based information, Watson (1998) found that students never talked about the accuracy of the information they found nor did they criticize the content they retrieved. Qualitative analyses of interviews with sixth graders suggested that when selecting information online, children rarely question the accuracy of the retrieved information (Large & Beheshti, 2000). Only a small amount of students showed skepticism towards online information. Hirsh (1999) found that fifth graders trusted the information they found online and did not question the source or the accuracy of the information. Further, recent research has focused on what children attend to during Internet searches (Becker, 2000; Shields & Behrman, 2000; Wartella & Jennings, 2000). This work has found that children have difficulty recognizing the differences between actual content and advertising (Wartella & Jennings, 2000).

A recent study found that older adolescents with a great deal of Web experience critically evaluate online information (Dinet, Marquet, & Nissen, 2003). However, Agosto (2002) found that although adolescents are getting better at evaluating content, they only mention cognitive authority as a criterion for judging the depth of online information and not the accuracy. Furthermore, they have the tendency to equate information quality with information quantity. The larger the site and the more information the site has, the more accurate it is judged to be. Unfortunately, this suggests even adolescents today still have trouble judging the accuracy of online content.

The previous work in this area has been useful; however, it is important to also explore children's evaluation of the Internet with experiments using larger samples of participants. To better understand how source presence, Web page dynamism, and advertising influence credibility perceptions as well as memory, the authors now turn to research in the area.


Effective evaluations of Internet sites involve attending to both explicit and implicit cues that produce attitude judgments. Through the elaborate likelihood model, Petty and Cacioppo (1986) provide a logical way to view how people become persuaded through message evaluation. In this model of persuasion, there are two routes to message evaluation, central and peripheral. Broadly speaking, central route processing requires considerable effort and relies on message-centered elaboration, whereas...

To continue reading