GAINESVILLE ─ Parents sometimes link the Internet to negative social behavior, but some children use the Web to learn about their communities, a new University of Florida study shows.
While most research on young people’s media use focuses on negative effects, UF Professor Rosemary Barnett sees it as a good thing.
“Two key factors to consider are the nature of the content and how it is used,” said Barnett, who teaches in the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, part of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “The ability to tap into a phenomenal amount of information so easily and quickly on a variety of topics has allowed the Internet to enhance education for children.”
After a 12-year-old Lakeland girl who endured cyber-bullying committed suicide in September 2013, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its media exposure policy. The group now recommends children use media for entertainment no more than two hours each night. They make an exception for online homework.
While the UF/IFAS study gave clues to children’s general Internet use, it focused on how students use the Internet to learn about their communities.
In the study, 133 children with an average age of 13 went to after-school programs at community centers in Volusia and Seminole counties. The children, all of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, did not have computers at home and had never used the Internet outside of school.
Children used the Internet for about 30 minutes to an hour each day, Barnett said. They were taught to search for certain topics and shown approved web pages.
The study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Youth Development, showed children knew more about their community, based on their use of the Internet and other media at the community centers.
Researchers surveyed students at the end of each of the study’s three years. Students answered questions about “community connectedness.” They answered the questions on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 meaning you strongly disagree and 5 meaning you strongly agree.
Children’s responses to the community connectedness questions increased from an average 2.95 after the first year to 3.42 after the third, a statistically significant increase, said Caroline Payne-Purvis, state coordinator for UF’s Children, Youth and Families at Risk program.
Researchers also measured community knowledge on the same scale, asking the students their sources of information.
Children said they learned community issues from several media sources, but their Internet-use score rose from 3.52 to 4.04. Of particular interest to Barnett was the fact that kids read newspapers and magazines more – their score on that question going up from 2.78 after the first year to 3.46 after the third.
These finding encourage Barnett.
By increasing at-risk children’s exposure to various community-based websites, Facebook pages and other social media, she said, they learn to use the Internet in a positive way.
Besides Barnett and Payne-Purvis, the research team included Gerald Culen, an associate professor in family, youth and community sciences at UF and Jeffrey Neely, a former UF graduate student and now assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa.