Expert Commentary

Online information, credibility and the “Google generation”: Research, tips, resources

2013 research review of academic literature as well as practical tips for instilling good online information-seeking habits in “digital natives.”

Students (iStock)
Students (iStock)

It’s been 15 years since Google was incorporated as a company, yet the public still seems to be feeling its way toward a more sophisticated understanding of how to harness online search technology to find richer, more accurate information.

Young people are often thought to be expert at navigating the digital world — they are “digital natives,” after all — but most research shows that when it comes to seeking credible information, they often fall short. Educators note that students sometimes have a hard time distinguishing between commercially influenced sites and peer-reviewed academic journals, for example. They also see many young people whose patience with the search process can quickly run thin.

What can educators do to solve this? How can this gap be bridged? And for media educators — who carry the greatest general burden for teaching the “art of verification” — what are the basic tools that every student should have? The beginning of any answer is a solid understanding of youth tendencies and generational norms that have evolved around online information. Below is a list of studies and reports that can be helpful to educators trying to understand and improve information-seeking habits.

The second step is giving young people the basic tools to perform online research in a smart way. Of course, various databases and major search engines — Yahoo!, Bing, Google — have different algorithms and tricks for finding things. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other platforms have their own internal search dynamics. At the most general level, success begins with taking a deliberate approach and articulating a search strategy.

The Google universe is the most obvious place to start. Dan Russell, Google’s “anthropologist of search,” updates his blog constantly with new tips and exercises that can challenge anyone who is looking to sharpen his or her search skills. The company also offers a variety of educational tools to help train students. Students should be familiar with how to use Google’s “Advanced Search” function and should know the nine basic operators that allow one to search Google in a targeted way:


Microsoft’s Bing also offers its own tips for those doing searches.

At a more specific level, media students should probably have knowledge of good tools that relate to obtaining information about specific people and businesses. Barbara Gray of the New York Times and CUNY Graduate School of Journalism offers tips.

Students should also know that Google Scholar offers a higher grade of information in general, much of which is peer-reviewed (here are some other quality databases):

For greater preparation toward navigating the academic and research world, see “Research tip sheets: Lessons on reading studies, understanding data and methods.”

Below are studies and reports that can provide further insight into a variety of topics in this general area:


“How Teens Do Research in the Digital World”
Purcell, Kristen; Rainie, Lee; Heaps, Alan; Buchanan, Judy; Friedrich, Linda; Jacklin, Amanda; Chen, Clara; Zickuhr, Kathryn. Pew Internet and American Life Project, November 2012.

Excerpt: “76% of teachers surveyed ‘strongly agree’ with the assertion that Internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily. Large majorities also agree with the assertion that the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students (83%) and that today’s digital technologies discourage students from using a wide range of sources when conducting research (71%). Fewer teachers, but still a majority of this sample (60%), agree with the assertion that today’s technologies make it harder for students to find credible sources of information…. Only about one-quarter of teachers surveyed here rate their students ‘excellent’ or ‘very good.’ Indeed, in our focus groups, many teachers suggest that despite being raised in the ‘digital age,’ today’s students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills. Students receive the lowest marks for ‘patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find,’ with 43% of teachers rating their students ‘poor’ in this regard, and another 35% rating their students ‘fair.’ ”


“Learning Curve: How College Graduates Solve Information Problems Once They Join the Workplace”
Head, Alison J. Project Information Literacy, October 2012.

Findings: College hires tend to give the quickest answer possible when asked to find information. They do so by using Web search engines and scanning the first few pages of results. Most employers were surprised that younger employees rarely use annual reports or phone calls to find answers to pressing questions. When recent graduates cannot find information online, many turn to a trusted co-worker for help with a quick answer. In other situations, they develop a trial-and-error method to solve information problems. Many employers sought recent college graduates who could make use of both online searches and traditional methods in information gathering, and present a synthesis of all information collected. Conversations with college graduates suggest that they perceive speed as a primary virtue in terms of completing professional tasks and requests from managers. They “wanted to prove to employers they were hyper-responsive and capable of solving information problems in an instant — a response they perceived employers wanted from them, based on their interviews and how dazzled some employers were with their computer proficiencies when they first joined the workplace.”


“Conceptual Relationship of Information Literacy and Media Literacy in Knowledge Societies”
Lee, Alice; Lau, Jesus; Carbo, Toni; Gendina, Natalia. UNESCO, 2013.

Abstract: “Many novel literacy concepts have been put forward in response to the new social and technological environments. Some are independent and novel, such as digital literacy and information fluency, whereas others are compound concepts such as multiliteracies, transliteracy and media and information literacy (MIL). Recent studies have indicated that future society will comprise the semantic Web, Big Data, cloud computing, smart phones and apps, the Internet of things, artificial intelligence and various new gadgets. In short, it will be an information and communications technology (ICT)-based society. Given the complexity of the next society, this report adopts an integrated approach towards new literacy training by establishing a literacy framework of “21st Century Competencies.”


“Youth and Digital Media: From Credibility to Information Quality”
Gasser, Urs; Cortesi, Sandra; Malik, Momin; Lee, Ashley. Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard University, February 2012.

Abstract: “This paper seeks to map and explore what we know about the ways in which young users of age 18 and under search for information online, how they evaluate information, and how their related practices of content creation, levels of new literacies, general digital media usage, and social patterns affect these activities. A review of selected literature … highlights the importance of contextual and demographic factors both for search and evaluation. Looking at the phenomenon from an information-learning and educational perspective, the literature shows that youth develop competencies for personal goals that sometimes do not transfer to school, and are sometimes not appropriate for school. Thus far, educational initiatives to educate youth about search, evaluation, or creation have depended greatly on the local circumstances for their success or failure…. Key findings: (1) Search shapes the quality of information that youth experience online; (2) Youth use cues and heuristics to evaluate quality, especially visual and interactive elements; (3) Content creation and dissemination foster digital fluencies that can feed back into search and evaluation behaviors; (4) Information skills acquired through personal and social activities can benefit learning in the academic context.”


“Understanding the Online Information-Seeking Behaviors of Young People: The Role of Networks of Support”
Eynon, Rebecca; Malmberg, L.-E. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, December 2012, Vol. 28, Issue 6, 514-529. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00460.x.

Abstract: “In this study we propose and test a model that adds to the existing literature by examining the ways in which parents, schools, and friends (what we call networks of support) effect young people’s online information behaviors, while at the same time taking into account young people’s individual characteristics, confidence and skills to use the Internet. Using path analysis, we demonstrate the significance of networks of support in understanding the uptake of online information seeking both directly and indirectly (through enhancing self-concept for learning and online skills). Young people who have better networks of support, particularly friends who are engaged in technology, are more likely to engage in online information seeking.”


Trust Online: Young Adults’ Evaluation of Web Content”
Hargittai, Eszter; Fullerton, Lindsay; Menchen-Trevino, Ericka; Thomas, Kristin Yates. International Journal of Communication, 2010, Vol. 4, 468-494.

Abstract: “Little of the work on online credibility assessment has considered how the information seeking process figures into the final evaluation of content people encounter. Using unique data about how a diverse group of young adults looks for and evaluates Web content, our paper makes contributions to existing literature by highlighting factors beyond site features in how users assess credibility. We find that the process by which users arrive at a site is an important component of how they judge the final destination. In particular, search context, branding and routines, and a reliance on those in one’s networks play important roles in online information-seeking and evaluation. We also discuss that users differ considerably in their skills when it comes to judging online content credibility.”


Balancing Opportunities and Risks in Teenagers’ Use of the Internet: The Role of Online Skills and Internet Self-Efficacy”
Livingstone, Sonia; Helsper, Ellen. New Media and Society, March 2010, Vol. 12, No. 2, 309-329. doi: 10.1177/1461444809342697.

Abstract: “Informed by research on media literacy, this article examines the role of selected measures of Internet literacy in relation to teenagers’ online experiences. Data from a national survey of teenagers in the U.K. (N = 789) are analyzed to examine: first, the demographic factors that influence skills in using the Internet; and, second (the main focus of the study), to ask whether these skills make a difference to online opportunities and online risks. Consistent with research on the digital divide, path analysis showed the direct influence of age and socioeconomic status on young people’s access, the direct influence of age and access on their use of online opportunities, and the direct influence of gender on online risks. The importance of online skills was evident insofar as online access, use and skills were found to mediate relations between demographic variables and young people’s experience of online opportunities and risks. Further, an unexpected positive relationship between online opportunities and risks was found, with implications for policy interventions aimed at reducing the risks of Internet use.”


“Parental Education and Children’s Online Health Information Seeking: Beyond the Digital Divide Debate”
Zhao, Shanyang. Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 69, Issue 10, November 2009, 1501-1505.

Abstract: “Research has shown that increasing numbers of teenagers are going online to find health information, but it is unclear whether there are disparities in the prevalence of online health seeking among young Internet users associated with social and economic conditions. Existing literature on Internet uses by adults indicates that low-income, less-educated, and minority individuals are less likely to be online health seekers. Based on the analysis of data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project for the U.S., this study finds that teens of low-education parents are either as likely as or even more likely than teens of high-education parents to seek online health information. Multiple regression analysis shows that the higher engagement in health seeking by teens of low education parents is related to a lower prevalence of parental Internet use, suggesting that some of these teens may be seeking online health information on behalf of their low-education parents.”


“Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the ‘Net Generation'”
Hargittai, Eszter. Sociological Inquiry, February 2010, Vol. 80, No. 1. pp. 92-113. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.x.

Abstract: “People who have grown up with digital media are often assumed to be universally savvy with information and communication technologies. Such assumptions are rarely grounded in empirical evidence, however. This article draws on unique data with infor- mation about a diverse group of young adults’ Internet uses and skills to suggest that even when controlling for Internet access and experiences, people differ in their online abilities and activities. Additionally, findings suggest that Internet know-how is not ran- domly distributed among the population, rather, higher levels of parental education, being a male, and being white or Asian American are associated with higher levels of Web-use skill. These user characteristics are also related to the extent to which young adults engage in diverse types of online activities. Moreover, skill itself is positively associated with types of uses. Overall, these findings suggest that even when control- ling for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.”


“Learning: Peering Backward and Looking Forward in the Digital Era”
Weigel, Margaret; James, Carrie; Gardner, Howard. International Journal of Learning and Media, Vol. 1, Issue 1, 2009. doi: 10.1162/ijlm.2009.0005.

Excerpt: “The Internet’s potential for learning may be curtailed if youth lack key skills for navigating it, if they consistently engage with Internet resources in a shallow fashion, and/or if they limit their explorations to a narrow band of things they believe are worth knowing. Left to their own devices and without sufficient scaffolding, student investigations may turn out to be thoughtful and meaningful — or frustrating and fruitless. A successful informal learning practice depends upon an independent, constructivistically oriented learner who can identify, locate, process, and synthesize the information he or she is lacking. More specifically, a variety of cognitive limitations, along with features of current search engines, problematize the identification, depth, and assessment of online searches for the typical student.”


Tags: youth, research roundup

About The Author