Research suggests that people’s ability to evaluate online information can vary significantly based on age and cognitive maturity (Metzger & Flanagin, 2013; Wineburg, McGrew, Break-stone, & Ortega, 2016). To develop News Evaluator (Axelsson, Guath, & Nygren, 2021; Nygren& Brounéus, 2018), an online tool based on digital apprenticeship, we conducted several studies to foster reliable credibility assessments among early teens (11-13), late teens (16-19) and young adults (20-35). We found that older individuals were better at assessing the credibility of online news items even without using digital aids (i.e. search engines or reverse image searches) pre-intervention when comparing teens with children and adults with teens. This suggests that the older participants had more experience and knowledge from which they could draw. Moreover, older participants spent more time and used digital aids to a greater extent when investigating the credibility of news items, indicating that they had more patience and more developed skills. Across ages, post-intervention results highlighted positive effects on participants’ learning but had more significant impacts on older participants.
These findings align with developmental psychology research, which shows that executive functions develop from early adolescence to early adulthood, with most individuals not fully developing until the age of 25 (Blakemore & Choudhury, 2006; Crone & Dahl, 2012). Older individuals typically possess more developed and complex models of how misinformation is designed, better strategies to investigate credibility, and likely better working memory capacity to keep multiple mental models active when tackling online (mis)information.
Designing age-appropriate interventions ensures that individuals learn appropriate strategies at the right time with realistic expectations and safeguards against wasting teacher resources. This also facilitates the gradual development of mental models crucial for fostering critical thinking and combatting the spread of misinformation. Given the significant differences in cognitive maturity across age groups, misinformation-based interventions should consider developmental factors concerning technocognition (Lewandowsky, Ecker, & Cook, 2017).
In summary, our study underscores the importance of considering cognitive maturity in the development of technocognitive mental models to assess online credibility. As the online environment continues to evolve, it is essential to recognise developmental differences that influence individuals’ abilities to evaluate and navigate the digital landscape. By tailoring interventions and educational programmes to address these developmental factors, we can foster more effective decision-making processes and promote a better understanding of the complex mechanisms at play in the online world. Through our research on the News Evaluator and its application to different age groups, we hope to contribute valuable insights into the ongoing dialogue surrounding misinformation, cognitive development and technocognition. This is especially true when designing digital civic literacy interventions for young individuals where we should not expect too much of them too early. By emphasising the importance of age-appropriate interventions and educational programmes, we can equip individuals of all ages to navigate the digital world with critical thinking skills and a strong foundation for making informed online decisions.