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The Internet is bad for morality, developing countries say
Most people in developing countries think the Internet has been a great influence on education, but not on morality, a new Pew Research Center survey has found. - photo by Chandra Johnson
Most people in developing countries think the Internet has been a great influence on education, but not on morality, a new Pew Research Center survey has found.

In a survey of more than 30,000 people in 32 developing nations like India, China and Uganda, a median of 42 percent of respondents said the Internet had a bad influence over morality, while 29 percent said it had a good influence. There was no majority in any of the countries that found the Internet to be a good influence on morality, Pew reported.

The study didn't specify how the respondents defined morality, nor did it ask any follow-up questions about how the Internet specifically impacted moral values or if using the Internet could change those values.

This is the first time weve asked this question and we didnt know what we were going to get, so we didnt have a follow-up ready, said study co-author Jacob Poushter. In many ways, this survey told us what we already knew: That the Internet is a mixed bag for a lot of people its seen as good for education, but when it comes to morality, people are still wary of it.

While Poushter said the survey results may lead to further study about the Internet and morality, experts say the Internet has such influence on so many aspects of modern life that many people in other parts of the world are likely wary of it for a variety of reasons, including the Internets centralized position in Western life.

The Internet is amoral. Its just a means of transmitting information, so the question is, how is it being used? California-based psychologist Jim Taylor said. There are plenty of other things that can influence our sense of morality, like schools or faith groups, but because the Internet has the ability to reach us so frequently and were always connected, it has an unusually significant impact.

Western values

Although Pews survey concentrated on the Internets impact on morality, some experts think foreign suspicion reflected in the survey may not be as much about the Internet itself as it is about alien, western values.

While morality is a very broad term, University of Rochester philosophy professor Randall Curren says there are certain moral virtues that most cultures consider part of morality, like trustworthiness, loyalty and general benevolence toward other people.

When people are worried about the Internet, some of it is blurring of the lines between core aspects of virtue and social norms, Curren said. The Western influences inherent on the Internet are likely making some people in these countries nervous that this may be influencing their youth in a way thats pulling them away from some of their moral beliefs.

Because so many of the most popular sites on the Internet are from the U.S. with Facebook, Twitter and other popular social sites rooted in American society Irina Raicu, director of California's Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, wonders if some nations feel that their morals are undermined on the Internet.

What we could be dealing with here is a clash of values, Raicu said. If you live in some of these developing countries and get on the Internet and see images of women not covered, writing their opinions and contacting men on social media, in some places, that would be seen as a negative impact on morality.

Age and access

Pew found that more educated, English-speaking people under 30 did not feel that the Internet was a negative influence on morality.

Young people see it more positive, part of it is because young ppl more likely to go toward values Internet presents, Raicu said. Theyre not seeing that as a loss of something good.

While the younger generations in many of the countries had warmer feelings about morality online, Raicu said it was important to note that Internet familiarity and access was a major issue in many of the countries surveyed.

Because Internet access is new for many countries, Raicu says many people may worry about technology's potential to change native culture.

We naively used to think that Internet reps American values, so we had those things built in like equality and freedom of speech, Raicu said. But those values are not familiar for everyone. For many of these people, the Internet means theyre being forced to see their culture changing more rapidly and realizing they dont have a lot of control over it.

The blowback against Western influence online is illustrated in countries like China or Russia, that allow access to a state-censored version of the Internet. China has a 63 percent usage rate, but 37 percent felt the Internet was bad for morality vs. 25 percent who felt it was good. The numbers were worse in Russia, where 55 percent felt the Internet was a negative influence vs. just 13 percent felt it was good. In that country, 73 percent of the population has Internet access.

Poushter emphasized that because the nations were still developing in different ways, the cultural winds would likely change.

It may be that the sentiment changes, Poushter said. We know that the Internet is affecting peoples lives, but we still have more to study and more to see about how much its affecting them in the future.

Whatever the country being surveyed, Curren said the Pew study underscored one universal truth.

No matter who they are, parents everywhere are nervous about their childrens values, Curren said. Thats a constant.
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