Study: Digital piracy linked to Internet addiction, ‘deviant’ friends


Digital pirates and IRL pirates purportedly have more in common than you think. (Peter Mountain/Disney Enterprises via Reuters)

In a finding that will surely thrill the movie industry and elicit eye-rolls and groans from just about everyone else, a team of researchers from several U.S. universities recently documented a correlation between piracy, Internet addiction and “deviant behavior” — things like using someone else’s credit card without permission or sending a naked text.

It’s an interesting finding in and of itself: To paraphrase the paper, published in the journal “Computers in Human Behavior,” it’s an important step in understanding Internet addiction and “online criminal behaviors.” But it’s also a very compelling commentary on what we consider criminal these days.

Is downloading a movie a crime? Is sexting? Is trolling? Does anything really defy social norms, on an Internet where the norms are not only relative, but in a constant, dizzying state of flux?

To answer those questions, we have to look to the methodology of the study itself. In a nutshell, researchers from Appalachian State, Tennessee Tech, Shippensburg University and the University of Louisville distributed surveys to just over 1,600 high school students at four high schools in rural North Carolina. The surveys basically evaluated three things: whether the students pirated online content and what they pirated; whether they showed signs of Internet addiction, as measured by things like craving and withdrawal symptoms; and whether any of their friends exhibited “deviant” online behaviors — things like sending a nude picture, using someone else’s credit card or ID without permission, logging into someone else’s e-mail or Facebook, and making repeat, unwanted sexual advances.

When the surveys came in, the researchers could essentially see how those three factors played against each other. Software piracy, they found, increases with Internet addiction, though music and movie piracy do not. Meanwhile, all three types of piracy increase with “deviant peer association” — in other words, if your kid is friends with a bunch of little punks, there’s a greater chance he or she is torrenting “Game of Thrones” on the sly.

Perhaps this seems intuitive, to a point. But here’s the really fascinating thing: The rates of both piracy and so-called deviance are pretty high across the board. Of the 1,600 high-schoolers in this study, 15 percent had pirated a song and 29 percent had pirated a movie. (The researchers posit that the actual rates are actually much higher.) More than 40 percent demonstrated some kind of “Internet related problem” — in other words, nearly half the students are on the Internet addiction spectrum.

And that puts the findings in a totally different light. By definition, a behavior can’t be deviant if everybody’s doing it. Then it’s just a part of the mainstream social code.

I e-mailed Catherine Marcum, the paper’s corresponding author and a professor of Justice Studies at Appalachian State, to ask who gets to define deviance — and whether piracy really is. It’s a very fuzzy standard, she admits, and one that varies profoundly based on whom you’re talking with. Here’s Marcum:

An act that is deviant is one that goes against social norms. This can be anything from wearing a bathing suit to a business meeting to committing murder. Acts can be deviant and not criminal, and vice versa. For instance, especially for the age group in the study, underage drinking or digital piracy behaviors may be criminal but not necessarily deviant as they are viewed as acceptable behaviors by this demographic …

Based on our research and other research in the past, it is understood by adolescents and young adults that this behavior is against the law. However, it is most definitely accepted by the age group and is usually not considered deviant. In fact, it is often viewed as a “victimless” crime or a crime that truly does not affect anyone substantially.

So while the Catherine Marcums of the world (i.e. adults, academics, non-digital natives) see piracy and a range of other typically teenage behaviors as socially unacceptable, teenagers frequently do not feel that way themselves. Perhaps that’s a mere generational gap — one we’ve seen repeat in every generation since bare ankles were considered a scandalous thing. But alternately, we could very well be seeing a greater cultural shift in what kinds of behaviors are or are not considered okay online. What is “deviant” to Catherine Marcum and her co-authors may not be deviant to the generation of digital natives aging into young adulthood now.

Incidentally, that’s a drawback of studying Internet behavior, in general. As Marcum and her colleagues caution many times in their paper, researchers have failed to conclusively define when Internet use becomes unhealthy or pathological, in large part because why and how and how much we use the Internet changes all the time.

“Social life has become increasingly intertwined with technology,” they write. “As a result, it is a difficult task for scholars to ‘draw the line’ between normal Internet use and problematic Internet use.”

It certainly doesn’t help that the line is moving. In fact, in a decade or two, a study that evaluates “online deviance” could look at a totally different set of behaviors. Time will tell if piracy even makes the cut.


Caption: Actor Johnny Depp portrays character ‘Captain JackSparrow’ in a scene from the new film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest’ in this undated publicity photograph. The film opens in the U.S. July 7, 2006. NO SALES NO ARCHIVES REUTERS/Peter Mountain/Disney Enterprises/Handout
Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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