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Kids and Credibility: An Empirical Examination of Youth, Digital Media Use, and Information Credibility

reviewed by Kaveri Subrahmanyam - August 30, 2011

coverTitle: Kids and Credibility: An Empirical Examination of Youth, Digital Media Use, and Information Credibility
Author(s): Andrew J. Flanagin and Miriam J. Metzger
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262514753, Pages: 154, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

The Internet has made available unprecedented amounts of information – in fact, Google search engineers estimated in July 2008 that there were one trillion unique URLs on the Web (Google Blog, 2008). Equally important is the ease with which this information can be accessed by anyone who can connect to the Internet. Having lived their entire lives immersed in digital media, youth take this easy access to information for granted and many have no conception of life without Google or Wikipedia. Unfortunately, not all of this readily available information is of equal quality –and an important issue is the extent to which young children are able to assess the credibility of the information that they encounter online. This is the focus of the research report titled “Kids and Credibility” by Flanagin and Metzger; published online and in print by the MIT Press, it is part of a series of reports that present the results of research projects funded by the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative. The report describes the findings of a large-scale survey of 11-18 year-olds in the United States and according to the authors “constitutes the first systematic study of youth designed to assess their information-seeking strategies and beliefs across a wide variety of media and information types” (Flanagin & Metzger, 2010).

As a research monograph, the report follows a conventional structure and begins with a Rationale and Overview of the research project, followed by a description of the Research Approach and Findings, and ending with the Conclusions and Implications. In the Rationale and Overview section, the authors present the problem of information overload on the Internet, and then argue that youth present a unique group with regard to the issue of credibility. On the one hand as digital natives, they are uniquely placed to comprehend and utilize digital information; but on the other, their cognitive and social development and limited life experiences may limit their ability to critically evaluate information. Although this section does a nice job of setting up the study, it was a bit too brief and did not discuss extant work on this topic–for instance, what we do know about how people assess the credibility of online information and what extant work reveals about young people’s attention to credibility concerns. Some details about prior research are discussed when presenting the study’s findings so readers should remind themselves to be patient.  

The bulk of the report focuses on the Research approach and findings – and the authors do an excellent job of providing details of the survey instrument including its development as well as the survey methodology and sample characteristics. Of particular note is that the survey utilized an online research panel that was representative of the entire U.S. population, thus increasing our confidence that the study findings will generalize and apply to youth in the U.S. today. Moreover, this section along with the Appendix is a must read for any researcher wishing to conduct an online survey of U.S. youth or utilize an online research panel. The Research Findings section similarly provides a detailed and exhaustive account of the results from the survey as well as from the quasi-experiments that were conducted. In a departure from the traditional format of a research article, some prior research (that the reader might have been looking for in the Rationale and Overview section) and discussion and interpretation of the findings is interspersed along with the results. Although a bit long, the presentation of the results was easy to follow; the accompanying figures (45 in all) are a plus and are especially useful to see age-based trends in the data. The Executive Summary in the front of the book also provides a succinct list of the main findings and is useful for the reader who may be short on time. The Conclusions and Implications section first summarizes the major findings of the study, and then briefly discusses the implications and limitations of the study, ending with future directions and conclusions.

Overall the study results are both reassuring and indicative of the work that lies ahead – they suggest that although youth are skeptical and concerned about the credibility of online information, nonetheless they do not consistently use analytic strategies to evaluate online information. The authors’ interpretation of these dually encouraging and discouraging findings points to the importance of experience and practice to assess information credibility and provides important directions for digital literacy efforts. Given the survey nature of the study, the results not surprisingly, are mostly descriptive. Although readers will be left with a solid understanding of what children typically think and do about information credibility, they will also be left wondering why this is the case. But this is also typical of much of the work on young children and digital worlds – and it is imperative for future research on this issue to examine the factors that influence children’s use of different strategies (e.g., social, analytic or heuristic) to assess information and to identify the kinds of experiences (including direct instruction) that will enhance their use of analytic strategies.  

Readers wishing for a more nuanced treatment of age and development will also be disappointed - although the authors allude to youth as being inhibited in their cognitive and emotional development, they do not really explore the issue of cognitive developmental differences in any depth. Instead, they frequently refer to their respondents as “kids,” glossing over the very broad age range of their sample (11 to 18 years) and the children’s underlying cognitive abilities. Given the large sample size and the relatively even distribution across different ages, one cannot help but wonder at the missed opportunity for exploring developmental differences. Nonetheless, this is a relatively minor criticism; considering the large sample and well-executed survey study, the importance of the research questions addressed, and the concise presentation of the study’s rationale and research findings, this volume is highly recommended for anyone wishing to learn more about young people’s use of digital media.


Flanagin, A. J., & Metzger, M. J. (2010). Kids and credibility: An empirical examination of youth, digital media use, and information credibility. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Reports on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press.

Google Blog. (2008). We knew the web was big......  Retrieved June 10, 2010 from http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/07/we-knew-web-was-big.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 30, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16522, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 6:05:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Kaveri Subrahmanyam
    University of California, Los Angeles
    E-mail Author
    KAVERI SUBRAHMANYAM, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles is Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and Associate Director of the Children's Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles. Her research has examined the cognitive and social implications of interactive media use. In early work, she conducted one of the first training studies showing the effects of computer game use on spatial skills. Subsequently she studied the developmental implications of chat rooms, blogs, social networking sites, and virtual worlds, such as Second Life with a focus on the development of identity and intimacy. Currently, she is studying the role of interactive media in the transition to high school as well as the cognitive implications of multitasking. She has published several research articles on youth and digital media and has co-edited a special issue on social networking for the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (2008). She is the co-author (with David Smahel) of Digital Youth: The Role of Media in Development (Springer, 2010).
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