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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

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

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

. 1 = strongly disagree. Mode = 1.70). positive affect (five items. p < . Computer attitudes (four items. 5 = strongly agree). Getting an “error message” on a computer? 1 = not at all anxious. 49) = 4. and because the focus of this research was on Internet use rather than computer use.. e. which did not differ from each other.05. indicating good reliability. and number of domains visited. e. 1 = strongly disagree. The time periods were as follows: time 1 (1–3 months). three that corresponded to survey administration points plus half-year and 1-year points.05 (Wilks’ Lambda). Instructional set and Internet use Multivariate ANOVAS were used to examine the effects of instructional set on Internet use (i. 5 = strongly agree).g.94. sd = 1.g. 5 = strongly agree). p < . number of e-mails sent) during each time period (i.22. e. e. marital status. F(2. Internet experiences (five items. p < . income. Using the Internet helps children to do better in school. Overall.72. 49) = 4.03). e. negative. how would you rate your skills at using the Internet? 1 = no skills. M = 1.80.g..05.. Computer affect: positive affect (five items. Coefficient alphas for these measures ranged from . e.80 to .09. Using a computer is fun. Internet affect (10 items). Participants in the communication condition had more Internet experience/skills (M = 2.g. How would you rate the extent of your experience with computers? 1 = no experience. F(2. changes over time each of these measures were divided into five time periods... previous experience/skills using the Internet was the measure used in subsequent analyses. technophobia) and Internet affect (positive and negative) were computed. Internet attitudes (nine items. I feel tense when I use the Internet. time 3 (7–9 months). Therefore.67.g. previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate in the analyses examining the effects of instructional set on Internet use. Previous experience/skills using the Internet was included as a covariate. technophobia (11 items.84.110) = 7. I enjoy using the Internet. 49) = 0. 1 = strongly disagree. How anxious (nervous) do you feel when you are doing.g. Because these composite measures were highly correlated (r = . number of sessions. 1 = strongly disagree.91.53). p < . M = 2. Participants in the information condition spent more time online than did those in the communication or basic instructions conditions. sd = 1. 5 = very anxious).g. time 5 (13–16 months)..89.15.e. p < . but not for number of e-mails sent. 1 = strongly disagree. 5 = very good skills) and demographic characteristics (race. How successful have you been in finding information on the Internet? 1 = very unsuccessful. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) indicated differences among the instructional set groups in their previous experience/skills using the Internet.e. Univariate statistics revealed main effects of instructional set for time online. 5 = very successful). Mode = 1.14.468 JACKSON ET AL. I get nervous when I use a computers. e.02. A significant multivariate effect of instructional set was obtained at time 2.g.29 Computer experiences (three items. number of sessions.85) or basic instructions conditions (M = 1.. F(2. Because of high variability and skewed distributions. 5 = strongly agree).99. previous experience/skills using the Internet (three items. 5 = a great deal of experience). p < . negative affect (five items. F(2.. 1 = strongly disagree. time 1 to time 5)..48.g. 5 = strongly agree).71. time 4 (10–12 months). e. negative affect (five items.. F(2. time 2 (4–6 months).001.g. Composite measures (arithmetic averages) of computer affect (positive.92. Means for the instructional set groups are presented in Table 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 . Md = 1. number of domains visited. pre-existing differences among the instructional set groups in their experience/skills using computers and the Internet. 5 = very successful).46) = 2.25) and previous experience/skills using the Internet (alpha = .. F(2. adapted from previous research:3. Pre-trial measures were obtained of previous experience/skills using computers (three items. Survey measures Surveys administered after the three-month home visit included the following measures. e. 5 = strongly agree). education). log transformations of Internet use measures were used in all analyses.g. Md = 2. e. Using computers helps children to do better in school. Composite scores (arithmetic averages) were computed for previous experience/ skills using computers (alpha = ..01.42) than did participants in the information (M = 1. How successful have you been in using your computer? 1 = very unsuccessful. or thinking about doing each of the following? e. time online.49) = 3. gender. age.

sample size. they would be viable candidates for mediating the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. they were consistently in the same direction. contributing to e-mail success. INSTRUCTION SET AND INTERNET USE Information (n = 43) Mean 56. p < .05).103) = 3.41 0.21 sd 70. Evidence presented elsewhere indicated that chat and instant messaging were similarly infrequent activities for both adults30–32 and children in the project. Values are per day at time 2 (4–6 months) n.46 0. MANOVAs were performed for each set of measures. contrary to predictions.50).103) = 3. Results indicated that neither e-mail success nor attitudes about the importance of computers to children’s school success predicted Internet use.24) than did those in the information condition (M = 2. controlling for previous experience/skills using the Internet.82 11. Results of analyses to examine the effects of demographic characteristics on Internet use and survey measures. Instructional set influenced computer experiences and attitudes. If so. Mediational effects of computer and Internet experiences.53.12 21.33 Thus. There were no differences among the three instructional set groups on pre-trial measures of computer and Internet affect or attitudes. sions and visited more domains than did those in the basic instructions condition. 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 results of analyses of survey measures obtained at nine months and post-trial may be found in Jackson et al. Participants in the communication and information conditions believed that computers were more important to children’s success in school (Ms = 4.18 Basic instruction (n = 35) Mean 29. use of these . standard deviation.09 sd 74.96 12. affect and attitudes Given the evidence that instructional set influenced Internet use.66 0. with previous experience/skills using the Internet as a covariate. we examined whether instructional set also influenced computer and Internet experiences. sending an average of only two to three e-mails per week throughout the 16-month trial. then these measures may mediate the relationship between instructional set and Internet use. Although differences did not reach statistical significance for the other time periods.12. regardless of which measure of Internet use was considered.70 0.72 sd 127.89 1.01. Consistent with predictions. Thus.05).99 14. while instructions about how to use the Internet’s communication tools were clearly helpful.55 7.82 13. F(2. If so. 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. and those in the basic instructions condition used it least.44 0. HomeNetToo participants seldom used e-mail.69 2.33 Internet use was automatically recorded.52 0. 4. Regression analyses were performed separately for each measure to predict Inter- net use. sd. 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. instructions that focused on the Internet’s communication tools did not result in greater Internet use than basic or information-focused instructions. affect and attitudes. but not compared to those in the basic instructions condition (M = 3. F(2.23 Communication (n = 38) Mean Time online (min) Number of sessions Number of domains visited Number of e-mails sent 42.30 DISCUSSION Instructions about how to use the Internet provided to low-income users influenced their Internet use in the months that followed.12. respectively) than did participants in the basic instructions condition (Ms = 4. However. Participants in the communication condition reported more success using e-mail (M = 3.INSTRUCTIONAL SET AND INTERNET USE 469 TABLE 2.25.56 .18 0.11 0. 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. p < . Participants in the information condition used the Internet most.15.31 0.

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

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