Who Says the Internet is Bad for Morality?

Posted April 17th, 2015 at 2:03 pm (UTC-5)
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Young Iranians surf the net in a Tehran internet cafe, June 24, 2001. (Reuters)

Young Iranians surf the net in a Tehran internet cafe, June 24, 2001. (Reuters)

The Internet has changed people’s lives in many ways over the years, particularly in developing countries. In addition to those who see it in a positive light, a recent Pew Research Center survey found many others who view the Internet as a negative influence on morality – depending of course on how you define morality.

That notion could have something to do with the type of governments in the respondents’ countries. It could also relate to “perceived threats on cultural values,” not just on morality, said philosophy professor Randall Curren of the University of Rochester in New York State.

“Morality is a general term to get at how people perceive the Internet … compared to those other different aspects of life,” said analyst Jacob Poushter at Pew’s Global Attitudes Project. “So we didn’t really define morality for people.”

Across the 32 emerging and developing countries surveyed, “most people said that the increasing use of the Internet has actually had a bad influence on morality within their country,” he said.

The negative perception is around 42 percent.

But depending on the culture and the region, morality might apply to a great many things, said Curren.

That could include gender roles, the way women dress, or whether they move in society without a male escort, for example. Those are things that “might be considered challenges to their understanding of morality,” he added.

That means that in traditional cultures, the situation of women might be perceived in terms of morality, whereas in the West, many would argue in favor of individual choice on whether women should work outside the home, for example.

“The Internet is bringing a lot of Western images and ideas in English language content they may perceive as sort of drawing their young people away from their established customs, ideas,” he explained.

Parents, in particular, might feel threatened by certain world views and social patterns, said Curren.

“The content that is of concern to some people – maybe especially parents – is English language content,” he added.

Parents who do not speak or understand the English language often fear that their tech-savvy kids are able to use and access the Internet and could “be very nervous about the influence this is having on their children’s thinking and development,” he said.

Younger, more educated people with higher incomes or those able to read and speak English are more likely to have access to the Internet and less likely to say that it is bad for morality, according to the survey.

And Internet users and smartphone owners “tend to be more positive” about the Internet and its influence, added Poushter.

But Helmi Noman, research affiliate at Harvard University’s Berkman Center in Massachusetts,  said the survey does not necessarily “reflect objective claims of right and wrong” because different cultures view morality in different ways.

So people living under repressive regimes or in countries that tightly control online content might also view the Internet as a bad influence on morality.

In many majority Muslim countries, for example, Noman said some “authorities portray the Internet as a destructive force that can potentially erode religious values, moral systems, and the fabric of social and family life.”

State censors play a role in influencing “public understanding of what is deemed immoral” and restricting or regulating access “to control the free flow of information,” while religious preachers and educators with a “dogmatic approach to the Internet” often emphasize in their messages to the public “that the Internet is detrimental to faith and society,” he said.

That in turn affects the view of morality, particularly where governments might “block online content around irreligiosity and secularism on moral grounds,” he said.

But any or all of these factors could contribute to the perception that the Internet is bad for morality.

The “absence of any definition of ‘morality’ in the survey makes it difficult to interpret the results,” said Santa Clara University’s Irina Raicu, Director of the Internet Ethics Program at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

She wondered if users in Western countries would feel that the Internet overall has a negative impact on morality were they to answer the same question, or if the results would yield a similar “generational split.”

“It would be really interesting to get an answer to that same broad, undefined question from Internet users in Western countries,” she said.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

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