Let's hear it for The Register, which for the second time this week is feeding me material on how evil the Internet is. And this time, it's proper Research.
The latest piece, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows a significant positive correlation between teenagers who make heavy use of the Internet, and those who show violent and aggressive behaviour in real life.
Now, anyone who's been online for more than half an hour must surely have noticed that there's a high proportion of jerks, and I've seen a great many explanations of this advanced over the years. Maybe it's harder to avoid such people online; maybe the anonymity of the 'net makes people more confident and less considerate; maybe it's because we're not accustomed to mixing with so many teenagers; maybe it's a small proportion of users making a large volume of noise; maybe it's simply the shared culture of a "place" with a population historically weighted towards adolescent males.
But this research suggests - although all of those things may still be true - it's not just a perception. There really is a higher concentration of yobs out here in cyberspace.
Media coverage of the finding is fairly clearly divided into two camps. In the blue corner, we have those such as FOX News, who have no reservations about citing the study as evidence that the Internet is turning our teens into sociopathic thugs. In the red corner, the likes of El Reg argue that causality could work the other way - it's possible that thuggish kids are simply more drawn to spend excessive amounts of time online. (To do it justice, FOX does acknowledge that possibility - but it's buried half-way down the story, while the opposite explanation is in the headline.)
Intuitively, to me, the second explanation looks likelier. Show a bully a medium in which they can inflict fear and offence with minimal risk, and my bet is they'll gravitate to it like the British government to a database. It'll fascinate them, seeing how much they can do, what they can get away with, until some idiot leaves it on a train...
The original paper preserves a studied neutrality on this point. But it does suggest that "preventive programs for aggressive behaviors should pay attention to Internet addiction among adolescents." Which just goes to show, it is possible to convert science into policy recommendations without, necessarily, getting into a shouting match about it.