Tough Choices

A social media campaign shines light on the ethical dilemmas teens face — and how to navigate them

By Leah Shafer, on March 16, 2016 2:22 PM
Tough Choices: A social media campaign shines light on the ethical dilemmas teens face — and how to navigate them #hgse #usableknowledge @harvarded

How much do adults really understand about the tough decisions teens have to make on a daily basis? What happens when teens stop and reflect on the situations they face, or when they think through the ethical ramifications before deciding how to act? 

Making Caring Common (MCC) explored this landscape last month with #YouthChoices, a first-of-its kind social campaign by MCC and its Youth Advisory Board (YAB). Teenaged members of the YAB and their peers posted on Twitter and Instagram about social and ethical challenges they struggle with at school, at home, or with friends. (Read and view the social postings to see what teens are facing.)

Navigating Teen Choices
• Empower teens as ethical actors
• Help them explore bullying’s subtext
• Think: Is the “right thing” the thing to do now?
• Be a role model: Talk about your choices
• Talk ethics across the curriculum

“We wanted to hear from the Youth Advisory Board about what an ethical dilemma even means to them,” says Luba Falk Feigenberg, the project’s coordinator at MCC. “There are typical themes that cut across all of the dilemmas the Youth Advisory Board members shared about relationships and loyalty and rules, but the examples that they gave — of drinking and texting and racism and homophobia and transphobia and ableism —  we wouldn’t have known how to put together.”

The goal wasn’t to offer answers; it was to prompt teens and adults simply to consider these dilemmas and ask: What’s at stake? How do these decisions relate to my values? Which solutions are tenable?

Feigenberg offers guidelines for how parents and educators can help kids and teens grapple with these and other tough questions they face.

Navigating Teen Choices: How Parents and Teachers Can Help

  1. Empower students to be ethical thinkers and decision makers. Parents and teachers often ask kids simply to “tell an adult” if a sticky situation arises. All kids need a helpful and caring mentor, but it can be safer, more productive, and empowering for students to take action on their own or with peers.
  2. Highlight the complex roots of bullying. We tend to think of bullying as one teenager harassing another without cause. But Youth Advisory Board members demonstrated that bullying can have an even more serious subtext — sexism, racism, or homophobia, for starters. Adults should underscore that these topics don’t exist in a vacuum and can manifest themselves in everyday comments and actions.
  3. Explain that “the right thing” isn’t always so simple. Standing up for your beliefs isn’t always wise — or necessary — in every setting. Should a pro-life man speak his mind in a group of pro-choice women? Should a transgender student advocate for herself even if she feels physically unsafe? Adults should prepare children to critically examine a situation and their own identity in that situation before coming to possible responses.
  4. Discuss the ethical problems that you encounter in your own life. Be a role model for children in thinking through difficult decisions. Talk about an uncomfortable situation you witnessed during your day, explain why you chose to speak up — or not — and reflect on whether you will next time.
  5. Facilitate conversations across the school day. While history and social studies classes can provide an easy gateway to tough discussions, teachers across disciplines should be ready and willing to talk about ethical dilemmas.



Additional Resources

  • Making Caring Common offers resources for schools and parents on bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, teen relationships, and gender bias.


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