Shoplifting vs. Downloading

   With an overwhelming majority of children online and concern for their safety paramount, encouraging good judgment as they navigate their way through cyberspace is vital. Protecting kids with censoring devices, such as Internet filters and parental spyware, are becoming commonplace. But even technological solutions aren’t always enough. According to recent research, a large majority of kids are sure about what’s right and wrong in the real world, but digital choices are not as clear-cut to them. 

   “While the Internet mostly mirrors kids’ real world behaviors, technology can amplify bad behavior and can make ethical lapses like cheating or illegal downloading easier,” says Anastasia Goodstein, author of Totally Wired: What Teens and Tweens are Really Doing Online and founder of “This is why it’s crucial for parents to engage in conversations with their children about the choices they make, online and off.”

   Consider the disparity in children’s minds when asked about ethical scenarios in the “real world” and cyberspace. According to the results of a 2007 Harris Interactive-Business Software Alliance study of 1,196 young people ages 8 to 18, 94 percent said taking something from a store without paying for it is “always wrong”, and 85 percent consider copying someone else’s answers on a test as “always wrong”. Yet just 61 percent say it is “always wrong” to download software without paying for it, and 59 percent report the same for downloading music or movies from the Internet without paying for them.

   “When one is copying, the victim is viewed as a person, but copying online is considered a victimless crime,” explains Dr. Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University and author of The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting. “It is easier to steal when the victim can be de-personalized.

   Parents probably will be surprised to hear that they are not the primary consideration in kids’ minds when it comes to the bad consequences of online behavior. Parents’ impact is growing, however, and results of recent studies vary based on children who are given rules about online behavior and those who are not.

   When children in the Harris study were asked what worries them about downloading software, music, movies, or games from the Internet without paying, the top responses were fear of downloading a computer virus (62 percent), downloading spyware (51 percent), and getting in trouble with the law (52 percent). Interestingly, fear of getting in trouble with parents ranked fourth (48 percent). When comparing the 2007 study with the 2006 study, however, parental influence is growing. In 2006, 40 percent of kids reported “getting in trouble with parents” as a deterrent.

   Parental involvement is a critical reinforcement in continuing to raise awareness and educating children about acting responsibly online. In fact, the young people surveyed in the 2007 study reported that parental oversight is a significant motivator and key influencing factor in their online behavior. When comparing the young people without parental rules to those with parental rules, kids reported they are more likely to surf the Web (87 percent without parental rules vs. 63 percent with rules); buy something (55 percent without parental rules vs. 19 percent with rules); download software (52 percent without parental rules vs. 19 percent with rules); and, download music without paying a download fee (47 percent without parental rules vs. 16 percent with rules). 

   Fortunately, the survey found that more than half of the students had been warned by their parents about dangerous, illegal online behaviors. Imposing rules and ensuring your children abide by them may seem to be an old-fashioned concept for cyberspace, but it works.

   Encouraging kids to view cyberspace appropriately is key. Many resources exist, such as, where they can play games and learn about being good cybercitizens. Parents can visit for free resources to teach children about cyberethics, including a 4-page comic book curriculum, fact sheets, articles, and more.

DAWN SMIROLDO is vice president, public affairs, Business Software Alliance. This article is reprinted with permission of the Alliance and is copyrighted to them.


Kids ages 8 to 18 report that the home computer is the most important electronic device they use on a regular basis, followed by the cell phone.

Computer at home 35%
Cell phone 20%
Video game system (i.e., Xbox, Playstation) 17%
Television 14%
iPod or other MP3 player 8%


Importance of their home computers and cell phones increases and importance of video game systems and televisions decreases with age.

Most important device Youth ages 8-12 Youth ages 13-18
Home computers 27% 41%
Cell phone 8% 29%
Video game system (i.e., Xbox, Playstation) 27% 9%
Television 22% 8%