The internet has emerged from the dark side. Far from being a tool that isolates its users, weakens society and undermines important institutions, Australian National University research shows the net as a force for good.
Its adherents are as socially aware and as altruistic as less frequent users, value its role in engaging with different races and countries, and increasingly employ the net as a tool for democracy - although some ideas are changing.
The study found that frequent internet users are less willing than others to accept the importance of traditional norms of citizenship - such as obeying laws and regulations, serving on a jury if called and being active in voluntary organisations.
Only 38 per cent believe that to be a good citizen it is important to always obey laws and regulations, compared with 51 per cent of less frequent users.
Even so, the study by ANU Professor Ian McAllister and Dr Juliet Pietsch says increased internet usage does not lead to a more individualistic and atomised society. Instead, frequent use helps people to build bonding and bridging forms of social interaction, the study says.
Based on a poll of 1200 Australians last December, The internet and Civic Society says it is important to understand the profound changes the internet is forcing on business, politics and social relations.
Australia has one of the highest levels of internet usage in the world, with 82 per cent of respondents to the poll using broadband, two-thirds using the net at least once a day, and almost two-thirds of Australians able to download audio, video and image files.
The internet has also become a major political issue with the Labor Government's controversial high-speed national broadband network now being rolled out under heavy fire from critics.
The A$43 billion ($58.4 billion) network - the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in the country - has been sold mainly on its claimed nation-building benefits, especially the creation of new jobs and businesses.
But the study says the net's soaring growth has raised serious concerns.
"We are all familiar with our children spending hours in front of their computers visiting websites and interacting with others around the world," it says.
"It is often suggested that a civic-oriented society has been declining over time as people have become less involved in voluntary social and political activities, less trusting of strangers and less likely to forge bonds with people whom they have never met face-to-face."
But the study says the results of its poll are largely positive, countering the pessimistic view that the net is undermining effective social relations and good citizenship.
It says frequent internet users are not more socially disengaged than others who rely on personal interaction, they are at least as good citizens, and report similar or higher levels of social capital.
More than half of the poll's respondents said the internet helped them interact with people from other countries, and about one third said it increased contacts with people of other races.
The poll also reported that 70 per cent of those using the internet more than once a day felt that, to be a good citizen, it was important to support people worse off than themselves, and 86 per cent felt it necessary to report crimes they may have witnessed.
"The results from the poll show that the internet helps people to not only participate in social groups that they already belong to, but also to interact with people from different age, race and national backgrounds," the study says.
"Virtual interactions help build bridging forms of social interaction."
The study also says that with about one in four respondents visiting political groups' websites and one in five electronically forwarding political messages, online activity is complementing - rather than replacing - traditional forms of political activity.By Greg Ansley Email Greg