Despite The Internet, Google Generation Lacks Analytical Skills

A study conducted by the University College London found that young people lack analytical skills necessary to assess the information they find on the Internet

Antone Gonsalves, Contributor

January 18, 2008

4 Min Read

While the so-called "Google Generation" grew up with the Internet, having a sizable chunk of the world's information at their fingertips has failed to make them better thinkers, according to a university study.

Young people born after 1993 are certainly familiar with computers and the Web and use both with ease, but a study conducted by the University College London found that they lacked the critical and analytical skills necessary to assess the information they found mostly through search engines.

Along with young people, older generations -- including professors, lecturers, and practitioners -- have been affected by having so much information so easily available. "Everyone exhibits a bouncing, flicking behavior, which sees them searching horizontally rather than vertically," said the study, which was released this week and commissioned by the British Library. "Power browsing and viewing is the norm for all."

The purpose of the study was to help libraries in Britain better understand how people conduct research in the digital age, so the institutions can serve the public better. While research into how young people become competent in using the Web is patchy, the study did find some consistent themes.

For one, information literacy has not improved with the widening access to technology. Instead, the speed of Web searching means little time is spent evaluating information for relevance, accuracy, or authority.

Young people also have difficulty in developing an effective search strategy. As a result, they have a strong preference for using natural language in searching, rather than analyzing which keywords might be more effective.

When searching brings back a long list of results, young people have difficulty assessing the relevance of the materials, and often print out pages with no more than a glance at them.

Young people also have an unsophisticated view of what the Internet is, and they fail to appreciate that it is a network of resources from many different providers. As a result, they focus on the search engine, such as Yahoo or Google, as the primary brand they associate with the Web.

Because search engines are familiar and simple to use, young people tend to use those tools in favor of library-sponsored resources.

The study also dispelled some myths about the Google Generation. For one, researchers found no evidence that young people were more impatient in fulfilling their information needs than others. Research also found that young people do not place more credibility on the Internet and their peers as information sources, but place more value on teachers, relatives and textbooks.

The Google Generation also does not feel any more of a need to be constantly connected to the Web than older people. "We suspect that factors specific to the individual, personality, and background are much more significant than generation," the study said.

Also, it's not true that young people pick up computer skills by trial-and-error. "The popular view that Google Generation teenagers are twiddling away on a new device while their parents are still reading the manual is a complete reversal of reality," researchers said.

Finally, everyone, not just young people, prefers easily digestible chunks of information, rather than the full text. "Power browsing and viewing appear to be the norm for all," the study said. "The popularity of abstracts among older researchers rather gives the game away. Society is dumbing down."

In regards to copyright, the study found that both adults and children aged 12 to 15 had a high level of understanding of the basic principles of intellectual property. Young people, however, felt copyright protection measures were unfair and unjust. "The implications for libraries and for the information industry of a collapse of respect for copyright is potentially very serious," the study said.

Among the takeaways of the study is that training is needed to teach young people how to become better information seekers, so they can meet the demands of higher education and research. "The key point is that information skills have to be developed during formative school years and that remedial information literacy programs at university level are likely to be ineffective," the study said.

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