A recent study, conducted by researchers at Michigan State University and published in the research journal Sex Roles, explores how children’s moral attitudes and behaviors carry over from the real world to the virtual one.
Researchers polled over 500 12-year-old children about their real-world behaviors and their opinions about the virtual world. One-third of the participants were black, two-thirds were white.
Findings suggest that the more likely a child is to lie to parents and teachers, cheat on tests, or bully a classmate-all deemed immoral behavior in the real world-the more likely he or she is to act immorally in the virtual world as well, by sending threatening emails, using sexual or violent language in text messages, or approving of violent video games.
But kids also seem to feel they can get away with more online. Researchers theorize that children may feel a greater sense of privacy in their virtual worlds. Parents can’t follow their every move on the web, so kids may feel free to act outside of the rules their parents would expect them to follow because no one is monitoring their actions.
Both race and gender seem to play a role in virtual morality as well. Researchers found that black children were more likely to bend the rules, while white children, boys in particular, based their moral behaviors in the real world strictly on rules. In regards to virtual behavior, black children were more likely to accept actions like emailing friends test answers, texting during class, and viewing sexual content online.
The more exposure children had to the Internet, the more they found acceptable in the virtual world. It makes sense – it’s hard to morally accept something you know nothing about. But there is a fine line between accepting these behaviors and acting on them. Children using the Internet frequently still need to learn which behaviors are simply prohibited.