Rich Parents Prefer Google, Are Better At Spotting Suspect Info

Mar 25, 2008 (01:03 PM EDT)

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A new Tufts University study sees the emergence of a "digital skills divide" based on socioeconomic status.

The study, published in the March/April issue of the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, finds that wealthy, educated Americans are more capable of identifying untrustworthy information about child-rearing on the Internet than poor, uneducated Americans.

Fred Rothbaum, a professor in the department of child development at Tufts University, and colleagues conducted interviews of 60 mothers and 60 fathers from low, middle, and high socioeconomic strata, as measured by education and income, about Web use and online information.

Rothbaum said that the research was conducted four years ago and is only now being published because of the time it has taken to analyze the study.

After answering questions about how they used the Web, parents were asked to search for information on a specific topic and then asked how confident they were that the information found was trustworthy.

While confidence levels did not vary by socioeconomic status, the justifications provided about why specific information was trustworthy did. Among parents in the high socioeconomic group, 40% said they were more likely to trust Web sites affiliated with credible organizations, like universities or research entities. Only 26% of parents in the middle socioeconomic group and 16% of parents in the low socioeconomic group expressed similar confidence in credible organizations.

The Tufts researchers conclude in the study that low social-economic status parents "are more likely to obtain information from dubious Web sites that fail to provide research-based information."

The study also indicates that wealthy, educated parents are more likely to choose their own search engine, rather than accept the default search engine on their computer. Among that group, 55% preferred Google, compared with 28% in the middle socioeconomic status group and 8% in the low socioeconomic status group.

"I thought it was rather striking that more educated people were using Google," said Rothbaum.

The most popular choice among those with low levels of income and education was AOL. The research didn't suggest a significant socioeconomic status difference among users of Yahoo or MSN. MSN Search is now Windows Live Search, but was called MSN four years ago when the study was conducted.

Last year, Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. student at the School of Information Sciences at the University of California at Berkeley, made a related observation about class divisions at Facebook and MySpace. She noted in an essay that high-social-status students seem to prefer Facebook and that those of lower social status seem to prefer the more garish MySpace.

High-socioeconomic status parents in Rothbaum's study also exhibited greater willingness than parents in the other two groups to revisit search results pages in order to select another link or to revise or refine searches with different keywords.

The researchers conclude that the digital skills divide ought to be addressed through greater education about search engines, searching, and information evaluation. Given that the gap is largely defined by lack of education, the study might best be summed up by saying the uneducated should be educated.

"The point is that there are some very basic skills that the government should be helping its citizens become aware of, just as it helps all its citizens with basic literacy skills," said Rothbaum.