You Need an Outlet and a Browser: How Children Understand and Use the Internet

Children today begin using the Web at a very young age, probably younger than anyone reading this article did. They are also one of the Web’s largest user groups. Because children seem to be confident Web users, we tend to assume they are also effective users. However, research reveals the opposite. By sharing findings from an exploratory study with five children, as well as the findings of other researchers, this article examines a child’s mental model of the Internet and identifies ways in which children use the Web. We also offer practical design tips to make the Web more usable for children.

Children’s Mental Model of the Internet

To gain insight into how children understand the Internet and use the Web, we invited five children, ages eleven and twelve, to participate in a study. These children were native English speakers, attended public schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and read at or above the reading level appropriate for their age. We first asked each of them to draw a picture of the Internet and explain their answers. Their drawings and explanations are shown in Figures 1 – 5. Only one of the five children (see Figure 5) really understood what the Internet was, yet all were using the Web, and all were generally able to find what they were looking for.

child's drawing

Figure 1. “You need an outlet and browser. There is a box with flashing lights that keeps the computer up. You just plug it in. When the lights [on the box] aren’t on, I know it doesn’t work.” (Donna, age eleven)

child's drawing

Figure 2. “I’m really not that into the technology. I picture the Internet as a huge computer and we all have a little space on it. Mine is here and my email is up in the corner. (Amy, age twelve)

child's drawing

Figure 3. “Google is the beginning. I guess it’s separated into different parts: shopping (Wii and the X-box). Then there is information (Wikipedia). And funny stuff (YouTube and comedy sites). And out of these, other bubbles: clothes, electronics, books to read, websites to see, funny video sites; games – a big one. That’s how it would be.” (Eric, age twelve)

Child's Drawing

Figure 4. “I’m putting blocks that represent a website. Then, I have main websites, like hosts, like search engines. These are Google, Yahoo, and one other, ‘Other.’ These are linked to websites, all of them. Every website is connected to every other website. So you can see how tangled things get. That’s what I think the Internet looks like. It’s all connected. You start at Google, Yahoo – you can set any of them as your start page, and you can go to any other website.” (Chris, age eleven)

child's drawing

Figure 5. “There are server figures, but not too many in basements because of economies of scale. The servers are connected to DNS servers, which have the IP address of the servers, and their domain name. When you type in a domain name, it goes to the DNS server and sends back the IP address, and then your computer goes to the computer with that DNS address.” (Ben, age eleven)

Search Queries and
Use of Auto-Complete

The children were then asked to perform a search using a search engine of their choice (Google, unanimously), and two search engines designed for children: Yahoo Kids and Ask Kids. Druin and other researchers have frequently observed that children tend to not look at the screen while typing in search criteria. If they look up from the keyboard, it is only to verify the words they typed prior to pressing the enter key. This disconnect from the keyboard to the screen impacts children’s ability to find what they are looking for because they miss the auto-complete suggestions.

However, two children in our research looked up to use the auto-complete feature. Chris explained, “I use ‘auto’ a lot because I am too lazy to type, and I want to see if they have it.” Amy offered a similar explanation, “I use it for long questions. When I don’t feel like typing it all in, I look to see if someone else has already asked the question.”

Ask Kids permanently displays suggested string completions on the left side of the screen, as shown in (see Figure 6). This feature was well-received by one of the participants, “Oh, these narrow your search! I wish Google did that. If they did, you’d have a better search string.” (Donna).

screencap of Ask Kids search engine

Figure 6. Ask Kids permanently displays alternate search strings below the search box.

Search Results Evaluation

After typing their query, children in our study generally only looked at the topmost links on the search results page. Other researchers, such as Blial and Druin, confirm this behavior. Ben explained, “Most of the [results] on page one—they’re usually better… In the beginning, the better the pages are, the more on track you are.”

If the topmost results did not appear to link to relevant pages, most of the children re-queried using a different search string. Only two children went to the second page of the returned search results before re-querying. The children we studied also did not persevere in finding relevant information. After several queries, if they did not find what they were looking for in the topmost results, they gave up. Donna explained, “The top page didn’t have any answers, so I knew I wasn’t going to get anything.”

Conversely, if some of the children were certain there was an answer, they continued searching. One of the participants, a Star Wars fan, explained why he gave up searching for the total number of U.S. dollars ever printed, but kept looking for George Lucas’ birthday on Ask Kids, “George Lucas was one guy. Someone had to write something about him. If it’s a really broad question, it’s probably too hard to find… If it’s about one person, one book, or something like that, it’ll be answered. If it’s about many things, it’s not there. I don’t think anyone would answer it. Why is it important?” (Chris). Chris’s conclusion that if the answer is not on the Web, the question must be unimportant deserves further study across a broader range of children.

Information Verification

Only two of the children in the study verified the information they found, either by finding the same information on other websites or by examining how the information was posted. “When I do research, I look at how ridiculous [the information] is, or the username. Like ‘Smileyface2000’ versus [name]@mit. If the information is from MIT or a professor, I believe it more than a cell phone contact number.” (Eric)

While the beauty of Web 2.0 is that individuals can freely post content, the danger is that children do not verify their findings and believe everything they read. Researchers like Schacter, Chung, and Dorr feel that children are fooled into believing what they see online because the content looks like the trustworthy online encyclopedias used in their school’s library.

Staying Safe on the Web

An obvious question now arises: how can children stay safe on the Web if they do not really understand what the Internet is and generally believe what they read? The children participating in this study had attended a Web privacy lesson given by their school librarian, which included the instruction of not giving their name to strangers. Additionally, they all seemed to have a clear sense of their personal comfort level on the Web, and knew they might encounter unexpected or unwanted information online. Amy explained, “I try to avoid inappropriate things. There might be hate groups, or people post inappropriate things, sometimes on YouTube. I just do email.” Ben shared slightly different concerns, “When I think something is inappropriate, I hit the back button. If I am uncomfortable, I leave. Some things I worry about are identity theft and online predators, that sort of thing.”

The children also seemed to be vigilant about trying to stay in areas of the Web where they felt safe. Upon seeing an advertisement on a Web page, Donna said, “I’m not going to click on that. I don’t know where it’ll take me.” If they accidentally encountered something that seemed inappropriate, we found that these children trusted their instincts and exited these sites.

Interacting with
 Sponsored Content

Children were confused and frustrated when they clicked on a sponsored link or clicked on a video and saw an advertisement for the first few seconds. They assumed they had made a mistake and quickly exited the site. After clicking on a movie trailer and seeing a Subway commercial first, Amy said, “See? This happens to me a lot. I go to something and it has nothing to do with what I looked up.” She then proceeded to close the video clip before the commercial ended.

Ben, searching for the size of Greenland, unwittingly clicked on a sponsored link for a travel website. He said, “This seems too touristy and there’s not enough facts.” Ben exited the site and stopped searching for the information.

Online Shopping

Along with having a sense of “appropriateness” for websites, the children in our study had a sense of appropriateness for shopping sites. Amy described her shopping frustration, “I wanted new sneakers. After I got to the site for Converse, I looked for girls’ shoes. But there was no page to click on. The only thing for kids was baby shoes, so I couldn’t find anything on the site. I thought it would be like the Gap.”

The children participating in this study knew they were not adults. Further research should explore whether children predominantly look for age and/or gender appropriate areas on shopping websites, and exit sites that do not offer products categorized in that way.

Reducing Web Frustrations

Here are a few suggestions that may help reduce the frustration that children experience using the Web:

Speak your users’ language.

Companies should determine the search strings children use to find their products, and use these as keywords on their sites. Children will typically not look beyond halfway down the first search results page, yet they influence billions of dollars in purchasing decisions.

Permanently display search strings.

Search engines and websites should consider a simple toggle which allows the user to always display search suggestions based on the entered query (similar to Ask Kids in Figure 6). This functionality might help children and other users find information they are searching for, but can be easily turned off by advanced users.

Design sections of your website for young people.

Websites offering products for various age groups should include a section targeted to children. This section should be easily accessible from the homepage. Adults exit websites quickly if they the sites do not seem to match their needs and expectations, and young people act the same way.

Carefully place your sponsored content.

If children are part of your website’s target audience, place sponsored links and ads in a way that minimizes accidental clicking. Young people are likely to exit the site if they feel confused or misled by sponsored content.

Young people comprise a large group of online users, with more than 68 million American children using the Internet in 2009. They also control a substantial amount of money spent online: $176 billion per year in the U.S. However, children face many frustrations using the Web. They also often misinterpret what they see, mistakenly exit sites, and miss what they are searching for, which impacts their effectiveness. More research is needed to explore children’s mental models related to Internet use, and determine ways to increase Web usability for this large audience.

Kamishlian, C., Albert, B. (2011). You Need an Outlet and a Browser: How Children Understand and Use the Internet. User Experience Magazine, 10(1).
Retrieved from http://www.uxpamagazine.org/need_outlet_and_browser/

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