Most people learn to use search engines through trial and error. You type something into the little box. Sometimes you get what you are looking for, sometimes you don’t. More often you get a frustratingly large number of responses that almost answer your question.
Now, imagine you are 9. You can’t type and you don’t spell very well. How likely is it that you’ll find what you want? Not likely at all, according to research by Alison Druin at the Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. She and her associates discovered that children often gave up before they found what they were looking for, and some simply concluded the information they wanted wasn’t online.
What Kids Are Searching For
The challenges of searching don’t keep kids from trying, and what they are looking for may surprise parents. In a review of over 14 million searches by children under 18, Norton’s OnlineFamily found kids were most likely to search for information about games, music, celebrities―and sex. In fact, sex was in the top 10 search terms for boys and girls while porn made the top 10 for boys.
These studies suggest there’s a role for parents in teaching kids to search effectively—and responsibly. Here are some suggestions:
Direct young children toward kid-friendly search engines . Kids in Druin’s study used Google, even though they have better choices. The search engines in the sidebar have kid-friendly graphics and return fewer but more targeted results. If one of these options appeals, set it as your home page, so children have ready access.
Turn on the parental controls. If your child prefers adult search engines, make use of filters. All the major search engines have them. For Google or Yahoo, go to Preferences and select SafeSearch. For Bing, go to preferences and choose the adult content filter.
Teach keyboarding skills. Children who have to hunt and peck are at a real disadvantage. For one thing, they can’t watch the auto complete function which suggests search words based on what you’ve already typed. Kids often don’t notice these clues because they are so focused on the keyboard. Point out this feature and explain how it works.
Stress spelling . Some kids think spelling doesn’t much matter in the age of instant messaging and spell checking. Wrong. Even the best search engine won’t find what your child can’t spell. Help your child master phonics and other spelling skills.
Find out what your child wants to know. If nothing else, knowing what your child is looking for online will give you ideas for dinnertime conversation. OnlineFamily software (available free at http://onlinefamily.norton.com) keeps parents updated on kids’ online activities including searches. Parents can also make a list of unacceptable search terms, and the software warns children if they are about to cross the line.
Explain how search engines work. Druin found kids assumed whatever showed up at the top of the search was the “best” result, so they rarely scrolled past the first page. Help kids understand that search engines use “spiders,” the robots that crawl all over the web and classify every page based on keywords, tags, links and other descriptors. Good as the robots are, they can only guess about what information will be relevant, and they can’t evaluate accuracy or reliability. In the library, your child knows she has to browse through several books to find the one that will provide the information she needs for a report. Explain that, on the Internet, it’s even more important to do critical browsing because so many websites are trying to sell a product or a point of view.
Teach a few tricks. Help kids brainstorm the keywords that will pinpoint the information they want. Be as specific as possible (parrots instead of birds). Use the most important words first. Put quotes about words that should appear together such as names. It also helps to add FAQ when looking for basic information or News when you want information about current events.
Anticipate problems. Cybercrooks often trick people into downloading viruses and spyware by setting up sites related to celebrities who are in the news. Tell young children not to download photos or other items from celebrity sites without your permission. Also, remind young searchers that, even if you can find words, music and pictures online, it isn’t OK to copy them without permission.
Will children learn to use search engines without adult help? Perhaps. But with a little parental guidance, they are likely to be less frustrated and may even make better choices about what they choose to find.