Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Digital Literacy of "Digital Natives"

A clear trend is emerging in the net gen literature. On one hand, the pundits and futurists continue to argue that "digital natives" are sophisticated users of the new technologies who critically analyze the information they access online. In most cases, we have to take their word for these claims because the underlying research (if there is any) is often proprietary and the authors reveal little of their methodology.

On the other hand, most of the academic research on this topic is showing that generation really isn't an important discriminator and that "digital natives", in fact, appear to have a superficial understanding of the new technologies, use the new technologies for very limited and specific purposes, and have superficial information-seeking and analysis skills. Now a new study has just been published that provides further evidence of the need to be extremely skeptical of the the often-repeated claims made by the likes of Tapscott, Prensky, and Palfery & Gasser and others.

Hargittai, Fullerton, Menchen-Trevino and Thomas (2010) investigated how young adults at a US university look for and evaluate online content. They found that the students they studied displayed an inordinate level of trust in search engine brand as a measure of credibility: "Over a quarter of the respondents mentioned that they chose a Web site because the search engine had returned that site as the first result suggesting considerable trust in these services. In some cases, the respondent regarded the search engine as the relevant entity for which to evaluate trustworthiness, rather than the Web site that contained the information." Only 10% of the students bothered to verify the site author's credentials: "These findings suggest that students' level of faith in their search engine of choice is so high they do not feel the need to verify for themselves who authored the pages they view or what their qualifications might be."

When asked how they decide to visit a Web site, the most important factor mentioned by the students was "being able to identify easily the sources of information on the site". However,  "knowing who owns the Web site" and "knowing what business and organizations financially support the site" were less important to students. When asked how they determine the credibility of the information, the least common actions were "checking if contact information is provided on the Web site" and "checking the qualifications or credentials of the author." Checking the "about us" section the Web site was also something that students did either rarely or on average.

Contrast these findings with what Tapscott (2009) has to say in Grown Up Digital:
"Net Geners are the new scrutinizers. Given the large number of information sources on the Web, not to mention unreliable information - today's youth have the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. The Net Generation knows to be skeptical whenever they're online. "

Palfrey & Gasser (2008) in Born Digital provide a slightly different, but equally positive, perspective on the critical faculties of "digital natives". They argue that "digital natives have a sophisticated process for gathering information from the Web that allows them to develop a deep understanding of current events and issues is often underestimated." "Digital natives" are "interacting with information in constructive ways", gathering information "through a multistep process that involves grazing, a 'deep dive', and a feedback loop. They are perfeting the art of grazing through the huge amount of information that comes their way on a daily basis."

But here's the important difference between the work of academic researchers like Hargittai and colleagues and books by people like Tapscott and Palfrey and Gasser: Hargittai's work has been subjected to peer review by experts in the field, has been published in academic journals and provides full details of the research methodology and how the research was funded and supported.

As Hargittai and colleagues conclude:
"While some have made overarching assumptions about young people's universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them (e.g., Prensky, 2001; Tapscott, 1998)...empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position...Students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content."

Read the full article, Trust Online: Young Adults' Evaluation of Web Content.

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