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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

Basic instruction consisted of verbal instructions from the visiting undergraduate “technology facilitator. and how to view contents of the sent folder. Although there is abundant research on the correlates of Internet use. Lansing.” a facilitator-guided demonstration of how to turn on and off the computer and how to logon to the Internet and use email.5 h. net household income). and all adult family members were required to participate in them. save and delete an email. Participants were recruited at meetings held at their children’s middle school and at the Black Child and Family Institute. affect and attitudes mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use..466 JACKSON ET AL. Fewer still use continuously and automatically recorded measures of Internet use. and 3 months. indicating that our sample was better educated than is typical of low-income samples. During this activity the technology facilitator pointed out how new e-mail was indicated on the screen. Michigan. including computer and Internet experiences and attitudes. relocation to another city (two families).6 years old. how long it takes (typically) between sending and receiving an e-mail. Participants in the communication condition were first given basic instruction about how to use the Internet. Approximately 140 children of the 117 adult participants discussed in this report also participated in the project but completed different surveys.8. Only four families did not complete the 16-month trial. To participate in the project a family had to have home telephone service for at least the previous 6 months. where he or she selected one of three online tutorials about how to use e-mail. Following the tutorial the participant was guided through the process of sending an e-mail to himself or herself and project staff. Invitations were extended to all parents whose children were eligible for the federally subsidized school lunch program.17 Average age of participants was 38.e. tion tools would influence Internet use in the months that followed. 1 month. A total of 90 families participated in the project.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. At one month the participant. the 16-month trial. how to open.000 USD annually (49%.4 MATERIALS AND METHODS Participants Adult participants in the HomeNetToo project were 117 residents of a low-income. Procedures Three instructional set conditions were created by varying the Internet activities that participants engaged in during home visits at pre-trial.7. and agree to completing surveys and participating in home visits at multiple points during Communication condition.3. a group neglected in much of the research on Internet use. Instructional set Also examined in this research was whether computer and Internet experiences. repeated the process . Participants were randomly assigned to instructional set condition. with guidance from the visiting technology facilitator. consent to having their Internet use continuously and automatically recorded. Both types of instructions will results in greater Internet use than only basic instructions about how to use the Internet. and difficulties monitoring teenager’s use of the Internet (one family).19–28 few studies use longitudinal designs that permit a consideration of cause-effect relationships.8. attributable to death (one family). At pre-trial participants in the communication condition. and earning less than $15. the only restriction being that all members of the same household participate in the same condition (i. 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. The majority of participants reported having some college education or earning a college degree (62%). Also necessary was that participants had never before had home Internet access. and handouts prepared by project staff about how to use the computer. Home visits lasted about 1. Participants in the project were low-income adults. households were randomly assigned to conditions). Demographic characteristics obtained at pre-trial indicated that participants were primarily African American (67%). medium-sized urban community in the mid-western United States. Internet and e-mail. navigated the project’s web site to an Online Activities drop-down menu. female (80%). Online tutorial options are presented in Table 1. never married (42%). together with the visiting technology facilitator.

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

Coefficient alphas for these measures ranged from . Participants in the information condition spent more time online than did those in the communication or basic instructions conditions.42) than did participants in the information (M = 1. Means for the instructional set groups are presented in Table 2. e. F(2.. time online.03).g. 5 = strongly agree). e. p < . e. Md = 2. education). e. income. 1 = strongly disagree. 5 = strongly agree). previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate in the analyses examining the effects of instructional set on Internet use.. which did not differ from each other. Internet affect (10 items).g. Therefore. Internet experiences (five items.05 (Wilks’ Lambda).71. negative. e. Survey measures Surveys administered after the three-month home visit included the following measures. Previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate.14.g. Because these composite measures were highly correlated (r = .. F(2.. changes over time each of these measures were divided into five time periods.e. F(2. p < . e.. 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 . sd = 1.72. Mode = 1. 5 = strongly agree).g.70).48. Pre-trial measures were obtained of previous experience/skills using computers (three items. 5 = strongly agree). indicating good reliability. 1 = strongly disagree. number of sessions. e. p < .15. age. time 4 (10–12 months). time 2 (4–6 months). marital status. Mode = 1.46) = 2. or thinking about doing each of the following? e. How successful have you been in using your computer? 1 = very unsuccessful.g.49) = 3. How anxious (nervous) do you feel when you are doing. Computer attitudes (four items.94. Because of high variability and skewed distributions. 5 = strongly agree). 1 = strongly disagree. Participants in the communication condition had more Internet experience/skills (M = 2. A significant multivariate effect of instructional set was obtained at time 2. number of sessions. 49) = 4. 49) = 4. Internet attitudes (nine items.02. p < . I feel tense when I use the Internet. I enjoy using the Internet.92.99. technophobia) and Internet affect (positive and negative) were computed.g.85) or basic instructions conditions (M = 1.. log transformations of Internet use measures were used in all analyses.29 Computer experiences (three items.89. three that corresponded to survey administration points plus half-year and 1-year points.25) and previous experience/skills using the Internet (alpha = . Getting an “error message” on a computer? 1 = not at all anxious. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated differences among the instructional set groups in their previous experience/skills using the Internet. I get nervous when I use a computers.g. previous experience/skills using the Internet was the measure used in subsequent analyses.468 JACKSON ET AL. Composite scores (arithmetic averages) were computed for previous experience/ skills using computers (alpha = . 5 = very anxious). number of e-mails sent) during each time period (i. but not for number of e-mails sent. how would you rate your skills at using the Internet? 1 = no skills.01. 5 = very good skills) and demographic characteristics (race. p < .. Using the Internet helps children to do better in school. Univariate statistics revealed main effects of instructional set for time online. pre-existing differences among the instructional set groups in their experience/skills using computers and the Internet. Using computers helps children to do better in school. previous experience/skills using the Internet (three items. F(2. 1 = strongly disagree.g. gender. Computer affect: positive affect (five items.. and because the focus of this research was on Internet use rather than computer use. F(2. p < . F(2. time 5 (13–16 months).80 to . M = 1.91. Instructional set and Internet use Multivariate ANOVAS were used to examine the effects of instructional set on Internet use (i. How successful have you been in finding information on the Internet? 1 = very unsuccessful. and number of domains visited. The time periods were as follows: time 1 (1–3 months).e.g. M = 2. Using a computer is fun.53). technophobia (11 items. number of domains visited. sd = 1.g..84.. 49) = 0.05.22.09. Md = 1. e..110) = 7.67. negative affect (five items. Overall.80. positive affect (five items. 1 = strongly disagree. Composite measures (arithmetic averages) of computer affect (positive. 5 = strongly agree). e. time 1 to time 5). negative affect (five items. time 3 (7–9 months).001..g. 5 = a great deal of experience).. e. 5 = very successful). How would you rate the extent of your experience with computers? 1 = no experience. 5 = very successful). 1 = strongly disagree.05. adapted from previous research:3.

4. There were no differences among the three instructional set groups on pre-trial measures of computer and Internet affect or attitudes. Thus. However. affect and attitudes. Participants in the information condition used the Internet most. INSTRUCTION SET AND INTERNET USE Information (n = 43) Mean 56.15. use of these .72 sd 127. then these measures may mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. affect and attitudes Given the evidence that instructional set influenced Internet use. with previous experience/skills using the Internet as a covariate.66 0. contrary to predictions. contributing to e-mail success. sd.24) than did those in the information condition (M = 2.56 .99 14. 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 2.69 2. they were consistently in the same direction.33 Internet use was automatically recorded. Values are per day at time 2 (4–6 months) n.12.INSTRUCTIONAL SET AND INTERNET USE 469 TABLE 2. sions and visited more domains than did those in the basic instructions condition.53. standard deviation.11 0. and results of analyses of survey measures obtained at nine months and post-trial may be found in Jackson et al. they would be viable candidates for mediating the relationship between instructional set and Internet use.55 7. p < . 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. Consistent with predictions. instructions that focused on the Internet’s information tools resulted in greater Internet use than only basic instructions about how to use the Internet. MANOVAs were performed for each set of measures.52 0.01.70 0.82 13. Evidence presented elsewhere indicated that chat and instant messaging were similarly infrequent activities for both adults30–32 and children in the project. Mediational effects of computer and Internet experiences. F(2.50). F(2. we examined whether instructional set also influenced computer and Internet experiences.82 11. HomeNetToo participants seldom used e-mail.30 DISCUSSION Instructions about how to use the Internet provided to low-income users influenced their Internet use in the months that followed.12. controlling for previous experience/skills using the Internet. 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.89 1.103) = 3. If so.05).05).96 12. regardless of which measure of Internet use was considered. Instructional set influenced computer experiences and attitudes. 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.33 Thus. sample size. while instructions about how to use the Internet’s communication tools were clearly helpful. If so. Results of analyses to examine the effects of demographic characteristics on Internet use and survey measures. instructions that focused on the Internet’s communication tools did not result in greater Internet use than basic or information-focused instructions.44 0. and those in the basic instructions condition used it least. Participants in the communication condition reported more success using e-mail (M = 3.18 Basic instruction (n = 35) Mean 29.31 0. sending an average of only two to three e-mails per week throughout the 16-month trial.09 sd 74.12 21. Participants in the communication and information conditions believed that computers were more important to children’s success in school (Ms = 4. Although differences did not reach statistical significance for the other time periods.23 Communication (n = 38) Mean Time online (min) Number of sessions Number of domains visited Number of e-mails sent 42.18 0.25.103) = 3. p < .21 sd 70. respectively) than did participants in the basic instructions condition (Ms = 4.41 0.46 0. but not compared to those in the basic instructions condition (M = 3.

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

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