CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIOR Volume 8, Number 5, 2005 © Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

Instructional Set and Internet Use by Low-Income Adults
LINDA A. JACKSON, Ph.D., ALEXANDER VON EYE, Ph.D., FRANK BIOCCA, Ph.D., GRETCHEN BARBATSIS, Ph.D.,YONG ZHAO, Ph.D., and HIRAM FITZGERALD, Ph.D.

ABSTRACT This research examined the effects of instructional set on Internet use by low-income adults during a 16-month longitudinal study. Participants (n = 117) received instructions that focused on either the Internet’s communication tools or its information tools. Internet use was continuously and automatically recorded. Survey measures of computer and Internet experiences, affect and attitudes were obtained to examine their mediational role in the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. Results indicated that instructions focused on the Internet’s information tools led to greater Internet use than instructions focused on its communication tools or only basic instructions about how to use the Internet. Implications for reducing the digital divide are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

H

OMENETTOO is a longitudinal field study designed to examine the antecedents and consequences of home Internet use in low-income families (<www.msu.edu/user/jackso67/homenettoo>). The study began in 2000 when 90 families received home computers, Internet access and in-home technical support in exchange for allowing their Internet use to be continuously and automatically recorded, participating in home visits, and completing surveys at multiple points during the 16month trial. This report focuses on whether instructions about how to use the Internet provided at pre-trial, 1 month, and 3 months influenced subsequent Internet use. Also considered is the mediational role of early computer and Internet experiences, affect and attitudes on the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. Previous research suggests that communication and information are the primary motives for using the Internet, and that communication is generally the stronger of the two.1,2 Indeed e-mail has been referred to as the “killer application” of the Internet.1,3–8 According to researchers at

Carnegie Mellon University: “Despite the hoopla surrounding the WWW, and not to dismiss its power in many domains, it is possible that interpersonal communication is driving the average person’s use of the Internet.”1 In support of the view that communication is the primary motive behind Internet use, national surveys indicate that the overwhelming majority of people who use the Internet at home use it mainly for e-mail.9–12 Even information search is often motivated by the need to communicate with others. The most popular reason for using a search engine is to find other people.13 On the other hand, the monumental success of the World Wide Web attests to the importance of information motives in everyday use of the Internet. The Web is quickly replacing traditional sources of information (e.g., newspapers), especially among today’s youth.2,8,12 With virtually no limit to the number of Web pages in sight, the Web will likely become the primary source of information for everyone who has access to it. In the HomeNetToo project we examined whether focusing instructions about how to use the Internet on either its communication or informa-

Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.

465

including computer and Internet experiences and attitudes. a group neglected in much of the research on Internet use.8. Invitations were extended to all parents whose children were eligible for the federally subsidized school lunch program. At pre-trial participants in the communication condition.. the only restriction being that all members of the same household participate in the same condition (i. never married (42%). During this activity the technology facilitator pointed out how new e-mail was indicated on the screen. with guidance from the visiting technology facilitator. Approximately 140 children of the 117 adult participants discussed in this report also participated in the project but completed different surveys. Also necessary was that participants had never before had home Internet access. and difficulties monitoring teenager’s use of the Internet (one family). and how to view contents of the sent folder.3. affect and attitudes mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. indicating that our sample was better educated than is typical of low-income samples. Based on previous research the following hypothesis was formulated: Instructions on Internet use that focus on its communication tools will result in greater Internet use than instructions that focus on its information tools.466 JACKSON ET AL. tion tools would influence Internet use in the months that followed. Fewer still use continuously and automatically recorded measures of Internet use. female (80%). and 3 months. the 16-month trial. attributable to death (one family). consent to having their Internet use continuously and automatically recorded. and all adult family members were required to participate in them. 1 month. Procedures Three instructional set conditions were created by varying the Internet activities that participants engaged in during home visits at pre-trial. save and delete an email. Instructional set Also examined in this research was whether computer and Internet experiences. where he or she selected one of three online tutorials about how to use e-mail. Home visits lasted about 1. households were randomly assigned to conditions).8. Only four families did not complete the 16-month trial.4 MATERIALS AND METHODS Participants Adult participants in the HomeNetToo project were 117 residents of a low-income. Internet and e-mail. Online tutorial options are presented in Table 1. Following the tutorial the participant was guided through the process of sending an e-mail to himself or herself and project staff. A total of 90 families participated in the project. Demographic characteristics obtained at pre-trial indicated that participants were primarily African American (67%). navigated the project’s web site to an Online Activities drop-down menu.e.000 USD annually (49%. how long it takes (typically) between sending and receiving an e-mail. The majority of participants reported having some college education or earning a college degree (62%).7. Participants were recruited at meetings held at their children’s middle school and at the Black Child and Family Institute. repeated the process . net household income). how to open. and handouts prepared by project staff about how to use the computer. Michigan.6 years old. Lansing. relocation to another city (two families). medium-sized urban community in the mid-western United States. Both types of instructions will results in greater Internet use than only basic instructions about how to use the Internet. At one month the participant.19–28 few studies use longitudinal designs that permit a consideration of cause-effect relationships. Participants in the communication condition were first given basic instruction about how to use the Internet.17 Average age of participants was 38.14–18 Lowincome adults are of particular interest not only for testing the generalizability of previous findings but also for identifying barriers to Internet use that may be unique to this group. To participate in the project a family had to have home telephone service for at least the previous 6 months. together with the visiting technology facilitator. Basic instruction consisted of verbal instructions from the visiting undergraduate “technology facilitator. Although there is abundant research on the correlates of Internet use. Participants in the project were low-income adults. Participants were randomly assigned to instructional set condition.” a facilitator-guided demonstration of how to turn on and off the computer and how to logon to the Internet and use email. and earning less than $15.5 h. and agree to completing surveys and participating in home visits at multiple points during Communication condition.

com/searches.com: http://www. number of sessions (logins per day). identical to those received by participants in the communication condition. Basic instructions condition.learnthenet. and information tools often involve communication. Internet use Four measures of Internet use were automatically recorded for 16 months for each participant: time online (minutes per day).imaginarylandscape.com/searches. number of domains visited (per day) and number of e-mails sent (per day). Thus.learnthenet.nz/about_telecom/tutorial Newsgroups Learn The Net: Newsgroups: http://www. Then.htm Search Engine Fundamentals: http://www. At 3 months.telecom. Information condition.com/english/animate/forums.htm Explore the Internet: http://lcweb.bizland.com/helpweb/ Index of Mailing Lists: http://paml.actden.bexta. At 1 month the process was repeated.learnthenet.yahoo. the participant. the same process was repeated except that the topic of instruction was Internet chats (Table 1). they received verbal instructions from the visiting technology facilitator. Thus. and 3 months. At three months.neolink.talkcity.gov/global/explore.com/english/section/ Mailing lists How To Use Mailing Lists: http://www. except that the topic of instruction was newsgroups. 1 month. Web search and newsgroups as information tools. at pre-trial.net/ Chats Yahoo Chat: http://chat. The online tutorial options for mailing lists are indicated in Table 1. except that the topic of instruction was search engines. their mode of delivery and posting is impersonal.webnovice. the quintessential communication tool of the Internet. at pretrial. To examine TABLE 1.html Navigating the Internet: http://www.ivillage. mailing lists and chat were categorized as commu- nication tools. and handouts prepared by project staff about how to use the computer.com: http://www. navigated the project’s web site to the Online Activities dropdown menu where he or she selected one of the online tutorials about the WWW (Table 1).com iVillage. except that the topic of instruction was mailing lists rather than e-mail.htm Telecom Tutorials: Searching: http://www2.com/skills2k/e-mail. together with the visiting technology facilitator.org/reference/e-mail. Although newsgroups provide a means of communicating. We categorized Internet tools as communication or information based on their primary use and on how personal they appear to the user.com/english/animate/ Electronic Mailing Lists: http://www. their mode of delivery and posting is e-mail. the process was repeated again.loc.com/usenet .com Talkcity.webnovice.com/chat/ WWW Webnovice. e-mail.html Exploring Usenet Groups: http://www. Internet communication tools often serve information functions.deja. Internet and e-mail.INSTRUCTIONAL SET AND INTERNET USE 467 that occurred during the pre-trial home visit. a facilitator-led tour of how to use the computer. Internet and e-mail.newbie.com Chat http://www.co.com Web search Search Engines & Directories: http://www. Although mailing lists provide information.htm Learn the Net E-mail: http://www. and the Web. Participants in the information condition first received basic instructions about how to use the Internet. Participants in this condition received only basic instructions about how to use the computer and Internet.com/search. ONLINE TUTORIALS E-mail Newbie Guide to E-mail: http://www.com/english/html How NewsGroups Work: http://www. and emphasizes information rather than communication.learnthenet.html Microsoft E-mail: http://www.

I enjoy using the Internet. Using computers helps children to do better in school. negative affect (five items. pre-existing differences among the instructional set groups in their experience/skills using computers and the Internet. 49) = 4. Using the Internet helps children to do better in school. 1 = strongly disagree... 1 = strongly disagree.53). income.89.01. 5 = strongly agree). p < . F(2. Md = 1.g. F(2. e. e.71.e.. 5 = very successful).15.02.05. and because the focus of this research was on Internet use rather than computer use. sd = 1. Computer attitudes (four items. p < . adapted from previous research:3. F(2. log transformations of Internet use measures were used in all analyses. 5 = a great deal of experience).. how would you rate your skills at using the Internet? 1 = no skills. Previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate. Because of high variability and skewed distributions.110) = 7. 5 = very good skills) and demographic characteristics (race. which did not differ from each other. number of sessions. M = 2. 5 = strongly agree). Instructional set and Internet use Multivariate ANOVAS were used to examine the effects of instructional set on Internet use (i. technophobia) and Internet affect (positive and negative) were computed. F(2.g. Therefore.. previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate in the analyses examining the effects of instructional set on Internet use. e.67.g. previous experience/skills using the Internet (three items.g. How successful have you been in using your computer? 1 = very unsuccessful. I feel tense when I use the Internet.001.g. How would you rate the extent of your experience with computers? 1 = no experience. or thinking about doing each of the following? e. 5 = strongly agree). Getting an “error message” on a computer? 1 = not at all anxious.. p < . Using a computer is fun.. Composite measures (arithmetic averages) of computer affect (positive. Overall. negative affect (five items. Survey measures Surveys administered after the three-month home visit included the following measures. F(2.468 JACKSON ET AL. Md = 2.g. time online. time 2 (4–6 months).g.09. How anxious (nervous) do you feel when you are doing.05. e. number of sessions.14. 1 = strongly disagree. Internet affect (10 items). Participants in the communication condition had more Internet experience/skills (M = 2. 5 = very anxious).. Participants in the information condition engaged in more Internet ses- RESULTS Preliminary analyses Before examining the effects of instructional set on Internet use we examined whether there were .e.03). Mode = 1.29 Computer experiences (three items.25) and previous experience/skills using the Internet (alpha = . previous experience/skills using the Internet was the measure used in subsequent analyses. I get nervous when I use a computers. 5 = very successful). e. time 5 (13–16 months). F(2.72. sd = 1. Means for the instructional set groups are presented in Table 2.80 to . negative. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated differences among the instructional set groups in their previous experience/skills using the Internet.22. Mode = 1.80.05 (Wilks’ Lambda).99. e. p < . gender. age. 49) = 4. Participants in the information condition spent more time online than did those in the communication or basic instructions conditions.g. Internet attitudes (nine items. indicating good reliability.g.48.49) = 3. but not for number of e-mails sent.84. time 4 (10–12 months). education).85) or basic instructions conditions (M = 1.. How successful have you been in finding information on the Internet? 1 = very unsuccessful. and number of domains visited. time 1 to time 5). Because these composite measures were highly correlated (r = . A significant multivariate effect of instructional set was obtained at time 2.42) than did participants in the information (M = 1. Coefficient alphas for these measures ranged from .. M = 1.94.g. e.46) = 2. 5 = strongly agree). p < .70). The time periods were as follows: time 1 (1–3 months). time 3 (7–9 months).. Computer affect: positive affect (five items. changes over time each of these measures were divided into five time periods. p < . Pre-trial measures were obtained of previous experience/skills using computers (three items. technophobia (11 items. 5 = strongly agree). 49) = 0. e. marital status. 5 = strongly agree). e.. number of e-mails sent) during each time period (i. Composite scores (arithmetic averages) were computed for previous experience/ skills using computers (alpha = . 1 = strongly disagree. positive affect (five items. 1 = strongly disagree.92.g. e. 1 = strongly disagree.. three that corresponded to survey administration points plus half-year and 1-year points.91. Internet experiences (five items. number of domains visited. Univariate statistics revealed main effects of instructional set for time online.

05). There were no differences among the three instructional set groups on pre-trial measures of computer and Internet affect or attitudes.96 12.01. Thus. sample size.18 0. Regression analyses were performed separately for each measure to predict Inter- net use. they would be viable candidates for mediating the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. F(2. Results of analyses to examine the effects of demographic characteristics on Internet use and survey measures. standard deviation. use of these . instructions that focused on the Internet’s information tools resulted in greater Internet use than only basic instructions about how to use the Internet. and those in the basic instructions condition used it least. and results of analyses of survey measures obtained at nine months and post-trial may be found in Jackson et al.72 sd 127.44 0. contrary to predictions. sending an average of only two to three e-mails per week throughout the 16-month trial. affect and attitudes Given the evidence that instructional set influenced Internet use.31 0. MANOVAs were performed for each set of measures. sd. then these measures may mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. Next we examined whether e-mail success and attitudes about the importance of computers to children’s success in school predicted Internet use at time 2. we examined whether instructional set also influenced computer and Internet experiences. If so.53. 4.15. but not compared to those in the basic instructions condition (M = 3.12.82 13. F(2. Evidence presented elsewhere indicated that chat and instant messaging were similarly infrequent activities for both adults30–32 and children in the project.30 DISCUSSION Instructions about how to use the Internet provided to low-income users influenced their Internet use in the months that followed. One explanation for the failure of communication-focused instructions to increase Internet use may lie in the infrequent use of the Internet’s communication tools. Instructional set influenced computer experiences and attitudes.11 0.52 0.33 Thus. sions and visited more domains than did those in the basic instructions condition.55 7. HomeNetToo participants seldom used e-mail. Consistent with predictions. Values are per day at time 2 (4–6 months) n.21 sd 70.82 11.103) = 3. regardless of which measure of Internet use was considered.12.18 Basic instruction (n = 35) Mean 29.69 2.103) = 3. e-mail success and beliefs about the importance of computers to children’s school success cannot explain the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. However. affect and attitudes. while instructions about how to use the Internet’s communication tools were clearly helpful. Although differences did not reach statistical significance for the other time periods.99 14.89 1. they were consistently in the same direction.05). Results indicated that neither e-mail success nor attitudes about the importance of computers to children’s school success predicted Internet use.23 Communication (n = 38) Mean Time online (min) Number of sessions Number of domains visited Number of e-mails sent 42. with previous experience/skills using the Internet as a covariate. instructions that focused on the Internet’s communication tools did not result in greater Internet use than basic or information-focused instructions.46 0. INSTRUCTION SET AND INTERNET USE Information (n = 43) Mean 56. p < .25.33 Internet use was automatically recorded. Participants in the communication condition reported more success using e-mail (M = 3. contributing to e-mail success.70 0. respectively) than did participants in the basic instructions condition (Ms = 4.12 21. If so. p < .24) than did those in the information condition (M = 2. controlling for previous experience/skills using the Internet.INSTRUCTIONAL SET AND INTERNET USE 469 TABLE 2.50).66 0. Participants in the information condition used the Internet most. Mediational effects of computer and Internet experiences.09 sd 74.56 . Participants in the communication and information conditions believed that computers were more important to children’s success in school (Ms = 4.41 0.

in the absence of family.g. from the National Science Foundation (Information Technology Research no. Findings obtained for one socio-economic group may not generalize to other groups. questions asked during the instructional sessions) Participants made good use of the Internet’s information tools (i. More research is also needed on Internet “churn” – the cessation of Internet use over time—and the implications of differential churn rates for the digital divide. Both required about the same amount of time to administer.. This is not to say that communication functions should be ignored.J. . ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This research was supported by a grant to L. accounting for the greater overall Internet use in the former condition. Given the complex relationship between attitudes and behavior. However. the Web). one implication of our findings is that more emphasis should be given to the Internet’s information functions rather than its communication functions in introducing the Internet to low-income users and in encouraging Internet use. Thus. Their families and friends were likely to be poor. but not causes of Internet use.. Instructional set influenced participants’ computer experiences and attitudes during the first three months of home Internet access. 085348). evidenced in our ethnographic data. Both included online tutorials that were chosen specifically to have similar difficulty levels. While we cannot rule out this explanation entirely. Instructions focused on either communication or information tools resulted in stronger beliefs about the importance of computers to children’s success in school than did basic instructions. Our findings suggest that factors influencing early Internet use may become less important over time.e. Instructions that focused on how to use these tools resulted in greater Internet use than when only basic instructions about how to use the Internet were provided. Factors influencing later Internet use are seldom considered in cross-sectional studies that examine correlates. Moreover. who typically have fewer resources with which to access information. and the extent to which parents encourage their children’s computer and Internet use. it is again unsurprising that participants made so little use of the Internet’s communication tools.470 JACKSON ET AL. it is not surprising that HomeNetToo participants made so little use of the Internet’s communication tools. As alternative explanation for the infrequent use of the Internet’s communication tools observed in our sample is that using such tools tends to require more complex typing and writing skills than are required to simply find information. These findings underscore the importance of considering socio-economic status in research on Internet use. HomeNetToo participants were poor. Poor people do not typically have home Internet access. If low socioeconomic groups are leaving the Internet at more rapid rates than are higher socioeconomic groups. Indeed every effort should be made to encourage low-income users to use the Internet’s communication tools so that they too may benefit from the social connectedness that such use seems to foster in higher-income users. tools was too infrequent to contribute to overall Internet use.3 e-mail may not be the driving force behind Internet use for all socioeconomic groups. HomeNetToo adults were not employed in occupations that required or encouraged e-mail communication with colleagues. Why did HomeNetToo participants make so little use of the Internet’s communication tools? An answer to this question may be so obvious as to be easily overlooked.30. then the digital “use” divide may be widening at the very same time that the digital “access” divide is narrowing. the design of the two instructional sets argues against it. Instructions focused on the Internet’s communication tools resulted in greater success using e-mail than instructions focused on information tools. Thus. Nor was there any indication in the behavior of our participants that they found one instructional condition more difficult to understand than the other (e. it may still be the case that contrary to previous claims.A. they may influence the extent to parents encourage their children to use computers and the Internet. Emphasizing the Internet’s information tools may be especially important in introducing the Internet to low-income groups. friends and co-workers online.34 more research is needed to understand how computer and Internet attitudes influence computer and Internet use by parents. Chat. Instant Messaging and online group communication may be particularly demanding and complex modes of communication for which our participants were not yet socialized. Although attitudes about the importance of computers to children’s school success did not influence parents’ Internet use. Taken together with a general reluctance to communicate with strangers.31 Findings from the HomeNetToo project underscore the importance of longitudinal studies to understand everyday Internet use. Yet another possibility is that the instructions provided in the information condition were somehow “better” than those provided in the communication condition.

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