Study: Morals change in 'virtual world'
Though a 12-year-old is, to some extent, guided by the same morals in the virtual world as in the real world, there is something else influencing online behavior, a study by MSU professor Linda A. Jackson found.
“In the real world, you wouldn’t take off your clothes, take a picture and mail it to your friends,” she said. “In the virtual world, this happens — it just did happen about a month ago in one of the schools in Michigan.”
The study surveyed 515 seventh graders about their real-world moral attitudes and behaviors, asking them to report on the acceptability of actions such as cheating. Participants also were asked to rank the number of times they had engaged in such behavior.
These results were then compared to the children’s attitudes about similar actions in the virtual world — such as e-mailing answers online — and the number of times students had participated in such actions.
The study’s findings demonstrated a “disconnect” between what students believed to be right and wrong online versus offline.
“We don’t know what (the disconnect) is yet,” Jackson said. “Some of it is explainable by moral behavior in the real world, but a lot of it isn’t determined by the real-world attitude and behavior — that’s what we need to understand.”
The same student who appears morally sound might be the student handing in papers pulled from Wikipedia.com, she said.
And a student sent to the principal’s office for a “completely inappropriate” e-mail sent to a friend would probably be unlikely to say the same things face to face, said Cliff Seybert, principal of MacDonald Middle School, 1601 Burcham Drive.
“I’ve seen a number of incidents where I am surprised at the kind of discourse that applies when a student is using Facebook or MySpace or an e-mail in a way I don’t think they’d behave in the real world,” he said.
The same phenomenon can be observed in college students, Jackson said, as some use allmsu.com to cheat and others turn in papers plagiarized from online.
“If someone came to them in the real world and offered notes, they’d say, ‘No,’” she said.
“But in the virtual world, it’s the same thing. You wouldn’t do something that obviously wrong in the real world, you’d think ‘No, that’d be wrong.’”
But MSU students said there’s a reason why something deemed unacceptable offline is considered OK online.
MSU human biology sophomore Joel Church said he thinks people hold back more in the real world than in the virtual world, where they can feel more anonymous.
“It’s more embarrassing to do things in person,” he said. “It’s kind of like how breaking up on the phone or writing a letter is easier.”
To fully answer this question, more research is needed, Jackson said.
“We need a better understanding of how young people understand the Internet,” she said.