Internet users are more tolerant, trusting, optimistic and literate than nonusers, but not always more liberal in personal beliefs, according to a study to be revealed at the University of Maryland, College Park today.
"I call it the diversity divide," said John P. Robinson, the UM sociologist who directed the research and presented the survey results to a "Webshop" that has gathered Internet researchers from around the country.
The study, a joint effort by College Park and Princeton University scholars, attached Internet use questions to the 2000 General Social Survey, the annual study by the University of Chicago that tracks changes in social trends, public opinion and behavior.
The size of the sample, 2,300 personal interviews, made it one of the most accurate Internet studies so far, researchers said, because it allowed them to adjust for differences in age, income and education.
Robinson said the differences transcend demographic factors such as age and education. Since Internet users tend to be both younger and better educated than nonusers, researchers used statistical controls to better gauge the responses. Robinson said the results show distinct differences in attitude between Internet users and nonusers.
Overall, the study found that Internet users are more accepting of social and political diversity than nonusers. They were significantly more likely to support or tolerate civil rights, homosexuality and nontraditional roles for women, and to oppose censorship of groups advocating those issues. They also said children should be taught not only obedience, but also how to think for themselves.
"Basically, Internet users are saying, `Let the communists have their book in a public library. Let the atheists teach in the school,' more than nonusers," Robinson observed.
Internet users were also more optimistic about life and described themselves as healthier and happier than nonusers did. They described their lives as more exciting and they were more trusting of their fellow citizens.
The results defy classification by the simple labels of "liberal" or "conservative," Robinson said.
For example, Internet users expressed greater tolerance for premarital and homosexual sex, but not extramarital or teen-age sex. They also support sex education in public schools, but not birth control for teen-agers.
"I'm puzzled by it," Robinson said. "The sexual questions, for example, if they're open to one form of deviant behavior, why aren't the open to another?"
Paul J. DiMaggio, a Princeton University sociology professor who helped develop the additional survey questions, likened Internet users to the museum-goers he studied through a similar survey in 1993.
"Museums and the Internet are really similar in that they are places you can explore and explore on your own schedule," he said. "Both groups of people are open to cultural experiences of all kinds and are looking for information."
The findings seem to contradict some previous studies, such as those conducted by Carnegie Mellon and Stanford universities, that label Internet users as more depressed and less social than nonusers and more likely to seek out only those with similar opinions while online.
"Any contact we have with others has the potential to affect our attitudes and beliefs. The Internet greatly widens that circle of contact," said Steve G. Jones, president of the 3-year-old Association of Internet Researchers.
"Internet use is generally a social activity, and virtually any form of socializing leads to people having positive attitudes and closer attachments to other people."
Robinson and his team received a $2.7 million National Science Foundation grant last year to study the Internet's social impact.
The team is disclosing its work at the three-week, graduate-level Webshop, which began Sunday at UMCP. Dozens of national Internet social scientists and nearly 60 graduate students are taking part.
The hope is that the conference and the study will help bring integration and cohesiveness to the field of Internet research.
"This is an area that cuts across disciplines and people are studying the same thing but not in the same way," Robinson said.
The researchers' original data are available at www.webuse.umd.edu.