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

how long it takes (typically) between sending and receiving an e-mail. how to open. and difficulties monitoring teenager’s use of the Internet (one family).3. attributable to death (one family). and handouts prepared by project staff about how to use the computer.19–28 few studies use longitudinal designs that permit a consideration of cause-effect relationships. 1 month. 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.5 h. indicating that our sample was better educated than is typical of low-income samples. Procedures Three instructional set conditions were created by varying the Internet activities that participants engaged in during home visits at pre-trial. including computer and Internet experiences and attitudes. Both types of instructions will results in greater Internet use than only basic instructions about how to use the Internet. with guidance from the visiting technology facilitator. consent to having their Internet use continuously and automatically recorded. Fewer still use continuously and automatically recorded measures of Internet use. and all adult family members were required to participate in them. and 3 months. Invitations were extended to all parents whose children were eligible for the federally subsidized school lunch program.000 USD annually (49%. medium-sized urban community in the mid-western United States. save and delete an email. net household income). Demographic characteristics obtained at pre-trial indicated that participants were primarily African American (67%). the 16-month trial. Approximately 140 children of the 117 adult participants discussed in this report also participated in the project but completed different surveys. Participants were recruited at meetings held at their children’s middle school and at the Black Child and Family Institute. navigated the project’s web site to an Online Activities drop-down menu. relocation to another city (two families).4 MATERIALS AND METHODS Participants Adult participants in the HomeNetToo project were 117 residents of a low-income. and agree to completing surveys and participating in home visits at multiple points during Communication condition. Following the tutorial the participant was guided through the process of sending an e-mail to himself or herself and project staff. Participants in the project were low-income adults.466 JACKSON ET AL. together with the visiting technology facilitator. where he or she selected one of three online tutorials about how to use e-mail. and earning less than $15. Lansing. Also necessary was that participants had never before had home Internet access.8. A total of 90 families participated in the project. Instructional set Also examined in this research was whether computer and Internet experiences. households were randomly assigned to conditions).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. During this activity the technology facilitator pointed out how new e-mail was indicated on the screen. Online tutorial options are presented in Table 1. Internet and e-mail. At one month the participant.e. never married (42%). and how to view contents of the sent folder. At pre-trial participants in the communication condition. female (80%).” a facilitator-guided demonstration of how to turn on and off the computer and how to logon to the Internet and use email. Basic instruction consisted of verbal instructions from the visiting undergraduate “technology facilitator.. Participants were randomly assigned to instructional set condition. affect and attitudes mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. Participants in the communication condition were first given basic instruction about how to use the Internet. Home visits lasted about 1. a group neglected in much of the research on Internet use. To participate in the project a family had to have home telephone service for at least the previous 6 months. Only four families did not complete the 16-month trial. The majority of participants reported having some college education or earning a college degree (62%). repeated the process . Although there is abundant research on the correlates of Internet use. Michigan.7. tion tools would influence Internet use in the months that followed.17 Average age of participants was 38.6 years old. the only restriction being that all members of the same household participate in the same condition (i.8.

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

gender. F(2. e.g. and because the focus of this research was on Internet use rather than computer use. Pre-trial measures were obtained of previous experience/skills using computers (three items.02. 5 = very successful). How successful have you been in using your computer? 1 = very unsuccessful. marital status.15.g. F(2. p < . which did not differ from each other. p < .89. Means for the instructional set groups are presented in Table 2. Participants in the communication condition had more Internet experience/skills (M = 2.72..g.. number of domains visited. I feel tense when I use the Internet. M = 1.42) than did participants in the information (M = 1. 49) = 4. Internet attitudes (nine items. 1 = strongly disagree. A significant multivariate effect of instructional set was obtained at time 2. 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 . previous experience/skills using the Internet was the measure used in subsequent analyses. number of sessions..09. sd = 1. 5 = strongly agree). 5 = strongly agree).. 5 = strongly agree). Therefore.14. Univariate statistics revealed main effects of instructional set for time online. I enjoy using the Internet. adapted from previous research:3.g. Internet affect (10 items).g. Internet experiences (five items.g. or thinking about doing each of the following? e. time 2 (4–6 months). 1 = strongly disagree.e.99. technophobia) and Internet affect (positive and negative) were computed.. e.70).. 5 = very good skills) and demographic characteristics (race. Coefficient alphas for these measures ranged from . Composite scores (arithmetic averages) were computed for previous experience/ skills using computers (alpha = . negative affect (five items. F(2. but not for number of e-mails sent.71.25) and previous experience/skills using the Internet (alpha = . One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated differences among the instructional set groups in their previous experience/skills using the Internet. How anxious (nervous) do you feel when you are doing. indicating good reliability. age.22. 1 = strongly disagree. three that corresponded to survey administration points plus half-year and 1-year points. changes over time each of these measures were divided into five time periods... 5 = very anxious). The time periods were as follows: time 1 (1–3 months).. time 5 (13–16 months). and number of domains visited. how would you rate your skills at using the Internet? 1 = no skills. time 3 (7–9 months).03). e. F(2.53). Participants in the information condition spent more time online than did those in the communication or basic instructions conditions. How successful have you been in finding information on the Internet? 1 = very unsuccessful.48.46) = 2. Using the Internet helps children to do better in school. time 1 to time 5).468 JACKSON ET AL.g. Survey measures Surveys administered after the three-month home visit included the following measures. technophobia (11 items. Md = 2. How would you rate the extent of your experience with computers? 1 = no experience. Overall. 1 = strongly disagree. positive affect (five items.01. 5 = strongly agree).84.92. Instructional set and Internet use Multivariate ANOVAS were used to examine the effects of instructional set on Internet use (i. Because of high variability and skewed distributions. education). Getting an “error message” on a computer? 1 = not at all anxious. e.g.. previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate in the analyses examining the effects of instructional set on Internet use. F(2. Because these composite measures were highly correlated (r = . p < .05 (Wilks’ Lambda).94. Composite measures (arithmetic averages) of computer affect (positive. Computer affect: positive affect (five items. 5 = a great deal of experience). I get nervous when I use a computers. Mode = 1.. income. 49) = 0. pre-existing differences among the instructional set groups in their experience/skills using computers and the Internet. Computer attitudes (four items. time online. e.g. negative. number of e-mails sent) during each time period (i. previous experience/skills using the Internet (three items.05. Using computers helps children to do better in school.80. 5 = strongly agree). e. e. 1 = strongly disagree. 5 = very successful). 49) = 4. M = 2. e..e.g. Md = 1.49) = 3. Using a computer is fun.05. Previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate. e.67..29 Computer experiences (three items. 1 = strongly disagree. e.91. log transformations of Internet use measures were used in all analyses.110) = 7. negative affect (five items. p < .001. time 4 (10–12 months).85) or basic instructions conditions (M = 1. Mode = 1. sd = 1.g. F(2.80 to . p < . 5 = strongly agree). p < . number of sessions.

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. MANOVAs were performed for each set of measures. contributing to e-mail success. affect and attitudes Given the evidence that instructional set influenced Internet use. Thus. Mediational effects of computer and Internet experiences. instructions that focused on the Internet’s communication tools did not result in greater Internet use than basic or information-focused instructions. use of these . but not compared to those in the basic instructions condition (M = 3. regardless of which measure of Internet use was considered. If so. p < .103) = 3.103) = 3.50).56 . instructions that focused on the Internet’s information tools resulted in greater Internet use than only basic instructions about how to use the Internet.99 14.12.33 Thus.18 0.70 0. standard deviation.25. Although differences did not reach statistical significance for the other time periods. Participants in the information condition used the Internet most. contrary to predictions. 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. Participants in the communication condition reported more success using e-mail (M = 3.11 0. Participants in the communication and information conditions believed that computers were more important to children’s success in school (Ms = 4. INSTRUCTION SET AND INTERNET USE Information (n = 43) Mean 56.24) than did those in the information condition (M = 2. sending an average of only two to three e-mails per week throughout the 16-month trial.05). Instructional set influenced computer experiences and attitudes. If so.72 sd 127. they would be viable candidates for mediating the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. F(2. sd.21 sd 70. with previous experience/skills using the Internet as a covariate. we examined whether instructional set also influenced computer and Internet experiences.09 sd 74.12. 4. Regression analyses were performed separately for each measure to predict Inter- net use. Results indicated that neither e-mail success nor attitudes about the importance of computers to children’s school success predicted Internet use.82 11. affect and attitudes.30 DISCUSSION Instructions about how to use the Internet provided to low-income users influenced their Internet use in the months that followed. respectively) than did participants in the basic instructions condition (Ms = 4. However. sions and visited more domains than did those in the basic instructions condition.18 Basic instruction (n = 35) Mean 29.82 13.INSTRUCTIONAL SET AND INTERNET USE 469 TABLE 2.41 0.89 1.12 21. sample size. 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. F(2.55 7.33 Internet use was automatically recorded.15.66 0.44 0. Consistent with predictions.01.53. p < . and those in the basic instructions condition used it least.05). There were no differences among the three instructional set groups on pre-trial measures of computer and Internet affect or attitudes. they were consistently in the same direction.31 0. Values are per day at time 2 (4–6 months) n. Evidence presented elsewhere indicated that chat and instant messaging were similarly infrequent activities for both adults30–32 and children in the project.69 2. controlling for previous experience/skills using the Internet. Results of analyses to examine the effects of demographic characteristics on Internet use and survey measures.46 0. and results of analyses of survey measures obtained at nine months and post-trial may be found in Jackson et al. then these measures may mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. while instructions about how to use the Internet’s communication tools were clearly helpful.23 Communication (n = 38) Mean Time online (min) Number of sessions Number of domains visited Number of e-mails sent 42. HomeNetToo participants seldom used e-mail.96 12.52 0.

085348). Findings obtained for one socio-economic group may not generalize to other groups. Their families and friends were likely to be poor. 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. Both included online tutorials that were chosen specifically to have similar difficulty levels. it is not surprising that HomeNetToo participants made so little use of the Internet’s communication tools. Although attitudes about the importance of computers to children’s school success did not influence parents’ Internet use. These findings underscore the importance of considering socio-economic status in research on Internet use. 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.34 more research is needed to understand how computer and Internet attitudes influence computer and Internet use by parents. 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. Thus. Chat. evidenced in our ethnographic data. Given the complex relationship between attitudes and behavior.e.30. HomeNetToo participants were poor.. 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. While we cannot rule out this explanation entirely. Both required about the same amount of time to administer. the design of the two instructional sets argues against it. accounting for the greater overall Internet use in the former condition. HomeNetToo adults were not employed in occupations that required or encouraged e-mail communication with colleagues. Yet another possibility is that the instructions provided in the information condition were somehow “better” than those provided in the communication condition. 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. but not causes of Internet use. However. tools was too infrequent to contribute to overall Internet use. then the digital “use” divide may be widening at the very same time that the digital “access” divide is narrowing. from the National Science Foundation (Information Technology Research no. Our findings suggest that factors influencing early Internet use may become less important over time. Instructions focused on the Internet’s communication tools resulted in greater success using e-mail than instructions focused on information tools. in the absence of family.. . Thus. Moreover. 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. Poor people do not typically have home Internet access. This is not to say that communication functions should be ignored. who typically have fewer resources with which to access information. 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.3 e-mail may not be the driving force behind Internet use for all socioeconomic groups. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This research was supported by a grant to L. questions asked during the instructional sessions) Participants made good use of the Internet’s information tools (i. Instructional set influenced participants’ computer experiences and attitudes during the first three months of home Internet access. Taken together with a general reluctance to communicate with strangers. it may still be the case that contrary to previous claims. it is again unsurprising that participants made so little use of the Internet’s communication tools. friends and co-workers online. the Web). If low socioeconomic groups are leaving the Internet at more rapid rates than are higher socioeconomic groups.31 Findings from the HomeNetToo project underscore the importance of longitudinal studies to understand everyday Internet use. they may influence the extent to parents encourage their children to use computers and the Internet. Instant Messaging and online group communication may be particularly demanding and complex modes of communication for which our participants were not yet socialized. and the extent to which parents encourage their children’s computer and Internet use.g. Factors influencing later Internet use are seldom considered in cross-sectional studies that examine correlates. 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.A.J. Emphasizing the Internet’s information tools may be especially important in introducing the Internet to low-income groups.470 JACKSON ET AL.

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