Children of the Net: An Empirical Exploration into the Evaluation of Internet Content

Article excerpt

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. …