April 2008

The Digital Skills Divide

Economics determines how parents surf the Web

While the so-called digital divide seems to be narrowing as access to online resources grows, researchers in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development say it's not time to be complacent. In a study of how different socioeconomic groups find parenting information on the Web, they point to what they call a "digital skills divide."

Fred Rothbaum, professor of child development, and his colleagues produce the online Child and Family WebGuide, a clearinghouse for online parenting information that rates the sites it includes as resources. They were curious about how parents of different socioeconomic groups use the Web as a parenting resource. "We were also interested in learning more about the audience that can most benefit from, and is least likely to use, resources like the WebGuide-people of lower socioeconomic status," says Rothbaum.

The researchers interviewed 120 parents of varying socioeconomic status about general Web habits and specifically about how they use the Web to find parenting information, and reported their results recently in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology.

They found that better-off parents are more likely to be online frequently and seek more types of information about parenting than those who are less well-off. The better-off parents are also more likely to choose their own search engine, rather than use a default search engine, in part because it found more relevant results. They also based their confidence in a parenting site on the credibility of the organization associated with the site. By contrast, parents of lower socioeconomic status are more satisfied with the information from sites to which they were first directed by their default search engine.

Researchers know that poorer people use the Internet less, "and more importantly, that they are less skilled in how they use it-how they search for and evaluate information," Rothbaum notes. That said, the Web is only one of many resources that parents rely upon, "and accounts for only a small-but increasing-amount of socioeconomic status difference in parenting behavior," he adds.

"As the Internet becomes more established as a primary source of information on children and childrearing, it will be increasingly important to devise ways to help parents choose information that is informative, credible and useful," he and Eliot-Pearson co-authors Nancy Martland and Joanne Jannsen write in the article.

"I would like to see," Rothbaum says, "more education for parents in how to use the Web."

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