It was a common question for a 4-year-old to ask: Where is heaven?
When Lindsey Winsemius, a mom, wife and communications professional in Michigan, recently told her daughter she didn’t know, her daughter surprised her with her response: “Mama, ask Google. Google knows everything.”
“That was a teaching moment," Winsemius said. "I really had to stop and try to tell her that Google definitely doesn’t know everything, and it’s just a place you go to get information from other people, but, I mean, try explaining that to a 4-year-old. It’s not easy.”
Winsemius, 30, worries about what messages her daughter could get from the Internet if she grows up trusting it too much.
“I don't know if I'd worry about (the messages she'd get from the Internet) as much as what she'd get from magazines,” Winsemius said. “But the Internet is so dangerous because there’s no context. You can get such a distorted perception from what you read and see.”
Parent advocates like Winsemius are fighting back against deceptive messages on the Internet directed at children. Earlier this year, YouTube (which did not respond to repeated requests for comment) rolled out YouTube Kids, a mobile app designed to provide parents with child-friendly YouTube videos without the risk of running into inappropriate material on the traditional website.
But child interest groups like Children Now, Consumer Watchdog and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, among others, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in April, claiming that the app “too seamlessly” mixes advertising and programming. The complaint alleges that the young children for whom the app is designed lack the ability to tell the difference between programming and advertising materials, and that YouTube is “deliberately deceiving” children.
For its part, Google and YouTube said developers worked directly with parent groups while building the app.
The quality and reliability of online content is a concept even adults struggle with at times, but it’s a conversation experts say is crucial for parents to have with their children.
“Even adults have trouble telling what’s true and what’s not online,” said psychotherapist and author Linda Perlman Gordon. “A whole universe of information is coming at kids through the Internet and much of it is not vetted. We have a responsibility as parents to make sure kids know what’s true and what’s not.”
A child getting unrealistic messages through media is nothing new, says California child therapist Dr. Fran Walfish.
“In an ideal world, it would be great if the Internet were held accountable for doing the right thing by the children,” Walfish said. “But we all know children are highly impressionable and just like TV commercials during cartoons in the past, much of the Internet is focused on making a buck.”
But because people — especially students — rely increasingly on the Internet from a very early age, the stakes are a little higher, Gordon says.
“If you don’t want your kids to think reality TV is real, you can turn it off. This is extraordinarily harder,” Gordon said. “Because computers are such a part of kids’ lives, especially for school, you can’t keep them from seeing disruptive images or internalizing misinformation.”
There’s now evidence to suggest that people’s faith in online information can even change the way they think, according to a recent joint study from the University of Washington and University of Maryland.
Participants were interviewed twice about gender ratios in various occupations. During the second interview, the researchers presented participants with Google image search results for the job titles and found that people adjusted their opinions based on the results alone an average of 7 percent.
That’s small, University of Washington assistant engineering professor and study co-author Sean Munson contends, but it's significant.
Across the board, women were underrepresented in Google image searches on average, even in fields where the ratio of men to women is even, like book authors. But for searches like “CEO,” the results significantly underrepresented women — although U.S. CEOs are 27 percent women, only 11 percent of the Google images depicted women.
“I’m not sure what impact this would have on kids who grow up using Google,” Munson said. “But people should question how much they want to rely on these tools for knowledge.”
While Munson’s study focused on adults, Walfish says it should send a serious message to parents about the possible consequences for children who grow up taking Google as gospel.
“Kids 8 and under who are on the Internet — and we all know most of them are — are going to be profoundly impacted by the definitions, visual images, realities and factual information that they’re bombarded with online,” Walfish said. “(This study) makes the role of parents in this, as with all things in the cyber world, so crucial.”
The role of parents
Whether the responsibility of policing the content and search results is on individual websites or parents is up for debate.
“All this raises a question about what a search-engine algorithm ought to do. People tend to think about the act of Googling something as clinical, technological— decidedly not human,” The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance wrote about Munson’s study. “But search engines are designed by humans who have diverse value systems and distinct ways of categorizing their understanding of the world.”
Gordon argues that because children often learn to use the Internet before they can even talk, parents shouldn’t waste a second talking to their children.
“This is the first generation that is absolutely digitally fluent in a language their parents may not be fluent in. Before a parent is even ready to have a discussion or put filters on their browsers, the kids are more sophisticated than they are,” Gordon said. “The conversation needs to happen as early as possible about how the Internet works and that it’s not always telling the truth.”
Walfish says parents should remember that while their children are adept at using digital devices, parents have the advantage of being their child’s first teacher.
“Cognitive learning first starts when babies look at their parents’ faces and it expands when parents expose babies to ideas through toys, media and videos,” Walfish said. “Parents have control from the beginning if they’re willing to live with the punishment of their kids temporarily hating the limits.”
For her part, Winsemius has no plans to let her children believe everything they find online.
“You can blame everyone else for what your kids are exposed to,” Winsemius said. “But it is ultimately my responsibility as a parent to tell my children, ‘Don’t believe everything you read.’”