'Google Generation' myths

The Web is changing the way everyone finds information, not just kids.

Is the Google Generation – children born after 1993 – different from the rest of us? Do they reach for a computer mouse while still in the crib, showing an instinctive ability to navigate the Internet and find quick answers? Actually, young information seekers aren't as different from adults as you might think.

A study of English-speaking youngsters in advanced Western nations released last month debunks some myths about youths and technology.

Is the Google Generation, for example, really more competent operating high-tech gizmos than adults? While that's "generally true," it's also true that "older users are catching up fast," says the study, commissioned by the British Library. "The majority of young people tend to use much simpler applications... than many imagine," it concludes.

Do youngsters "multitask" – doing two, three, or more things at once? "There is no hard evidence," the study says. Do they prefer visual information over text? "A qualified yes, but text is still important," the study says. Do youths have zero tolerance for delay and expect their information needs to be fulfilled immediately? "No," says the study, "there is no hard evidence to suggest that young people are more impatient in this regard."

While in a social context youngsters may value the opinions of their peers more than of adults, that apparently isn't true regarding their academic lives. "[W]e think this is a myth," the study says. "[T]eachers, relatives, and textbooks are consistently valued above the internet."

Still, the use of search engines such as Google or Yahoo is turning both students and adults online into "bouncers" and "power browsers." They skim the surface for data – titles, tables of contents, short abstracts – but rarely dig deep. That's fine for a quick overview: But scholars also must know how to mine the depths of a subject, its subtleties and nuances, if they are to learn to think for themselves.

Though students usually show a high degree of computer literacy, their "information literacy" – ability to find and absorb high-quality information – is often not good, the study says. They spend little time evaluating information found on the Internet. They need to be taught better skills for weighing the accuracy, relevance, and authority of what they find.

To provide this help, libraries will have to change their image. Students often think of them as just places full of books, not high-tech information resources.

That's true even of college students, 89 percent of whom begin their research using a general search engine rather than a library website. Nearly all of those college students were satisfied with their search. And that's the problem. If libraries are to be relevant, they must teach more sophisticated research methods.

The study also raises a concern about students and plagiarism. Youngsters, it seems, are fast becoming the "cut-and-paste" generation. Yes, they understand the concept of intellectual property rights – that someone took a lot of effort to write that paper or record that song or video. It's just that they "feel that copyright regimes are unfair and unjust," the study says.

Wait until they grow up and many of them find that their own intellectual property is the source of their livelihood. That attitude could yet change.

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