Hanna Jochmann-Mannak – Why the internet should and will become better for children
“Children should have the same access to the online world as adults do; not by filtering everything, but by providing relevant, reliable sources and most importantly, by providing comprehensible content for their specific age.”
With a PhD in Information Sciences and her own little one on the way, this topic is close to Hanna’s heart. She studied Communication and Information studies at Utrecht University, with a Master’s degree in website usability. Her subsequent PhD research focused on children’s online information-seeking. She studied design conventions of websites for children and the effects of different types of interfaces on children’s search performances. The outcome of her research was nothing less than shocking.
The children she worked with, primary school students aged eight to twelve, experienced a lot of problems trying to find answers to their questions online and most of the time, they did not find any answers at all. She came to realise that children lose a lot of time aimlessly roaming the internet, without actually finding the information they are after.
Hanna identified three key issues when children use the most popular search engine:
1. They show too many results for children to handle. As she says: “It is like drinking from a fire hose!” As difficult as it can be for adults to deal with the overload of results, it is even harder for children.
2. Children are unable to pick the most relevant answer, and instead pick one of the top results on the first page that pops up. This does not always lead to relevant or reliable answers to their query. Moreover, children do not yet have the skills to distinguish what actually is reliable and relevant.
3. When children do manage to find a relevant result (whether reliable or not), they often do not understand what they are reading. Most information on the internet was not written with children in mind and is simply too complex for their young minds.
From this research sprung a dream: Hanna wants to make the internet suitable and usable for all children. First of all, and perhaps most obviously, the internet should be a safe place for children. Parental control and filters are needed to protect them from inappropriate content. Over the last few years a lot has been done to put these filters in place, but this is not enough.
Safe information does not necessarily mean understandable or relevant information. Therefore, a lot more suitable content needs to be available for children, based on their specific interests and reading levels. Furthermore, children should be supported in finding relevant results that correspond to their perception of the world around them.
Hanna gave a great example of this during her talk: “When a six-year-old enters the query ‘mushroom’, they probably want to know more about dwarfs and fairy tales rather than, for example, recipes that feature mushrooms. And when a twelve-year-old searches for ‘mushroom’ they might be interested to learn more about the different types of mushrooms. Both children are definitely NOT looking for information on where to buy magic mushrooms!”
Making the internet a great place for children is not just Hanna’s dream, she is actually making it a reality! Together with her colleagues she is developing technology that can create an environment where children have access to relevant, reliable and understandable information. Her dream is that when a child opens their browser, the content is automatically adjusted to suit their age, reading level and interests. And she strongly believes it can be done.
Photography © Kerry Reinking www.kerryreinking.nl