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Parents versus Peers - how these groups influence the Internet Ethical Attitudes of Generation Y

Who most influences the online ethics of the world's first web generation - Generation Y? This research looks at the respective influences of parents and peers.

Author(s): Dan Petrovici - Kent Business School; Bodo B. Schlegelmilch - WU: Vienna University of Economics and Business, Institute for International Marketing Management; Ilona Szőcs - WU: Vienna University of Economics and Business, Institute for Managing Sustainability

Generation Y, the generation born between 1980-2000 [1], are the first generation to have grown-up with the Internet, and as well as having access to the countless sources of news and information the web provides they have also been able to engage in unethical online activities, such as viewing or disseminating pornography, committing plagiarism and pirating software.

Here we define Web Ethics as 'how right or wrong consumers feel an online activity is'. Web ethics research into Generation Y has looked at the role of technology in teenage moral development, the ethical awareness of technology-related issues, how ethical illegal acts are seen, and differences in downloaders and non-downloaders. Research in this area however has neglected the role of social factors.

Social learning theory suggests that social learning comes from numerous sources in a child's upbringing, such as peers, school, religion and culture. One of the most dominant sources of moral guidance of course is parents. However, young people also learn from direct and indirect interaction with peers; through discussions, rulemaking, reinforcement and modeling. In particular, 'digital natives' [2] have an inclination to trust peer opinion and public consensus rather than established data sources. In some cases they have entirely integrated their social lives and their electronic gadgets.

This raises several questions such as: which is more important in shaping young people's online ethics; parenting style or peer influence? If there is an effect, how big is it and is any particular parenting style more effective than another?

Some parents encourage discussion and verbalisation. In such a permissive and encouraging environment, children are likely to explore the Internet more and be exposed to more unethical activities as they develop their own sense of what is right and wrong in discussion with their parents. Thus, we hypothesise that parenting that encourages verbalisation is positively related to Generation Y's attitudes towards online unethical activities.

Other parents are more protective. With such protection, clear and consistent standards and the expectation of self-regulation, children are more likely to be ethical. Thus, we hypothesise that a protective parenting style is positively related to Generation Y's attitudes towards online unethical activities.

Generation Y, the generation born between 1980-2000 [1], are the first generation to have grown-up with the Internet, and as well as having access to the countless sources of news and information the web provides they have also been able to engage in unethical online activities, such as viewing or disseminating pornography, committing plagiarism and pirating software.

Here we define Web Ethics as 'how right or wrong consumers feel an online activity is'. Web ethics research into Generation Y has looked at the role of technology in teenage moral development, the ethical awareness of technology-related issues, how ethical illegal acts are seen, and differences in downloaders and non-downloaders. Research in this area however has neglected the role of social factors.

Social learning theory suggests that social learning comes from numerous sources in a child's upbringing, such as peers, school, religion and culture. One of the most dominant sources of moral guidance of course is parents. However, young people also learn from direct and indirect interaction with peers; through discussions, rulemaking, reinforcement and modeling. In particular, 'digital natives' [2] have an inclination to trust peer opinion and public consensus rather than established data sources. In some cases they have entirely integrated their social lives and their electronic gadgets.

This raises several questions such as: which is more important in shaping young people's online ethics; parenting style or peer influence? If there is an effect, how big is it and is any particular parenting style more effective than another?

Some parents encourage discussion and verbalisation. In such a permissive and encouraging environment, children are likely to explore the Internet more and be exposed to more unethical activities as they develop their own sense of what is right and wrong in discussion with their parents. Thus, we hypothesise that parenting that encourages verbalisation is positively related to Generation Y's attitudes towards online unethical activities.

Other parents are more protective. With such protection, clear and consistent standards and the expectation of self-regulation, children are more likely to be ethical. Thus, we hypothesise that a protective parenting style is positively related to Generation Y's attitudes towards online unethical activities.

Peers have the most influence on short-term choices such as Internet activity, while parents tend to have stronger overall influence over adolescents' longer-term choices with developmental consequences such as choice of job, university or partner.

However, parents do affect perceived unethical activities via the degree of agreement about the ethics of a specific activity. They should therefore be very careful about their own perceptions of specific Internet behaviours.

Our study contributes to the literature in several ways. First, while technological factors have been highlighted as causes for the changing nature of Generation Y's online ethical attitudes, the role of social factors such as the role of parents vs peers has been neglected until now. Since digital natives trust peers more than established data sources, we contribute to this debate by showing how strong peer influence is in comparison to parenting style on online ethical attitudes. Secondly, by using the relatively unique research approach of parent-child dyads in our data collection, we provide important insights regarding dyadic ethical attitudes which previous research has not been able to identify.

In terms of further research, although our models have good explanatory power, there are clearly other factors, which influence online ethics such as media and online usage or values.

The research paper was published in Electronic Commerce Research and Applications in early January.

[1] See e.g. Bhave et al. (2013), Bristow et al. (2011), Weingarten (2009), or Sayers (2007)

[2] Helsper and Eynon (2010) define digital natives as "someone who comes from a media-rich household, who uses the Internet as a first port of call for information, multi-tasks using ICTs and uses the Internet to carry out a range of activities particularly those with a focus on learning" (pg. 515).

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