Internet study suggests women & older users more concerned about virtual violence, spreading viruses

December 20, 1999

LINTHICUM, MD, December 21 - Female and older computer users appear more concerned than their counterparts about moral issues affecting the Internet like spreading computer viruses and sharing offensive computer games, according to a study in a journal of the Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®).

The study, "Morality and Computers: Attitudes and Differences in Judgements," appears in the current issue of Information Systems Research, an INFORMS publication. The authors are Urs E. Gattiker, Aalborg University in Denmark, and Helen Kelley, University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. The study uses operations research techniques to reach its conclusions.

Spreading Viruses & Offensive Games

The researchers questioned Internet users about three hypothetical scenarios with ethical dilemmas. In one vignette, respondents are told that a friend has just created a computer virus and uploaded it to an electronic bulletin board. In a second vignette, they learn that a friend is distributing a computer game that is banned in his/her country because of its violent, sexual, and racist content. A third vignette examines acceptance of a friend's use of a new data encryption device to protect the privacy of e-mail correspondence.

The authors say, "We anticipated the following responses: the encryption vignette would be judged as perfectly acceptable; the virus vignette would be judged as a little wrong; and the banned game vignette would be judged as wrong. As expected, respondents judged the encryption scenario as perfectly acceptable. However, the respondents' judgements about the virus vignette and the banned game were unexpected. In fact, computer users viewed the virus vignette as morally wrong and the banned computer game as a little wrong."

Examining the data by age of respondent, the banned game was viewed as harmful by 44% of respondents over 35 years old, compared to 22% of younger respondents. A higher level of older respondents (92%) than younger participants (72%) viewed the virus action as harmful.

Examining the data by gender, 59% of women, compared to 23% of men, viewed the banned game vignette as harmful. A higher level of male respondents viewed the banned game as the individual's personal business (86%) and non-punishable (93%). In contrast, 43% of the women said that the actor of the banned game should be stopped and 35% of the women felt the person should be punished.

The authors analyzed the responses by applying the domain theory of moral development, a widely accepted model used in the field of moral psychology.

The research has potential value, say the authors, because it contributes to discussion about possible regulation of the Internet and can provide useful information for designing organizational and industry policies regarding the ethical use of information technology.

The study also hints at those who would support restrictive legislation and those most likely to oppose it.

For example, write the authors, "The results indicate that younger people feel it is acceptable to obtain and distribute a banned game, whereas older respondents feel it is wrong. Every year, millions of young users join the Internet by obtaining access through schools and universities. If they feel that obtaining and distributing an illegal computer game is acceptable and a personal preference, then governments may have difficulty mustering public support to prevent access to violent, sexual, and racist materials on the Internet."

Limited Study

The authors distributed a survey via three electronic newsletters to information technology users. The subjects addressed by the newsletters were safety, security, privacy, and sociological, political, and business issues with computers and information systems involving organizations and private users. Approximately 1,000 Internet users received the survey; 700 of the recipients lived in the U.S.; 30% of the recipients were women. Of those, 137 completed questionnaires were returned. The response rate of usable surveys was 11.4%, an acceptable level for surveys distributed electronically. The results are scientifically meaningful because the sample was properly designed and constitutes a representation of the larger population of interest. The population sampled was information technology users who have knowledge and experience using the Internet.
The Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences (INFORMS®) is an international scientific society with 12,000 members, including Nobel Prize laureates, dedicated to applying scientific methods to help improve decision-making, management, and operations. Members of INFORMS work in business, government, and academia. They are represented in fields as diverse as airlines, health care, law enforcement, the military, the stock market, and telecommunications. The INFORMS website is at

Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences

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