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Ethics, Disconnected

Helping young people confront the ethical dilemmas of the online world

Dramatic scenarios of moral and ethical lapses are everywhere on the Internet: the college student who used his webcam to secretly film his roommate, who later committed suicide; the high school students who tweeted about the rape of a fellow student; the hackers who stole compromising photographs from celebrities and posted them to a public site, where commenters blamed the celebrities for their predicament.

But even the mundane decisions that people make online every day can carry profound moral and ethical weight, especially for the young people who are full-time actors on the digital stage. What do you do when you see mean comments about your teacher or your boss on Facebook? Do you post that embarrassing photo of your friend acting silly or drinking a beer? What about when you’re tagged in a photo taken at a party that your soccer team’s rules said you couldn’t attend? Is it OK to take someone’s programming code, or copy someone’s artwork, as long as it’s just for fun?

Ethical Blind Spots

Most young people approach decisions like these with mindsets that are deeply individualistic, says Carrie James, a sociologist and principal investigator at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. James has just published a cautionary new book called Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap (MIT Press), drawing on data from qualitative interviews with young people between the ages of 10 and 25 collected by PZ’s Good Play Project. In it, she explores the extent to which moral and ethical thinking informs everyday digital actions — and how those actions and ways of thinking are justified by young people and by the adults in their lives.

James finds that ethical thinking — paying attention to the impact of your actions on your community and on wider networks of people both known and unknown to you — is in short supply. Young people tend to have “blind spots and disconnects,” she says, as they approach issues of privacy, appropriation of property, and participation in online communities. Judging their actions, they tend to think primarily of personal consequence (Will I get in trouble? Will I get to play in the game this weekend?), and dismiss or fail to perceive questions of broader impact. Hostile comments on Facebook are written off as “just a joke”; downloading pirated music may be acknowledged as probably wrong, but is still often met with an “everybody does it” shrug.

Conscientious Connectivity

As a prescriptive, James offers a vision of conscientious connectivity — a more mindful way to engage with the digital realm and to confront the dilemmas and blind spots. Here, she says, teachers and parents have a significant role to play. They can help young people raise their sensitivity to the ethical aspects of their online actions and to cultivate ethical thinking skills. They can explore real-world ethical dilemmas and empower students to wrestle with the issues involved and to consider a widening pool of perspectives beyond their own.

Ethical Thinking Means . . .

  • Developing the capacity to take the perspectives of the many people — yourself, your friends and family, your school, a wider affinity group — who are affected by your online actions.
  • Developing a capacity to reflect on your various roles and responsibilities online.
  • Developing a capacity to consider benefits and harms of online choices for distant observers and larger communities.

A Mentorship Gap

But James identifies what she calls a “mentorship gap,” arguing that adult conversations with young people about online behavior focus almost solely on issues of personal security, not on moral or ethical obligations. Among her findings:

  • Conversations about the Internet are happening in schools, but they are most often limited to issues of personal risk. Teachers can expand these conversations to raise awareness of digital citizenship and social responsibility.
  • Although parents of tweens play a substantial role in shaping kids’ thinking online, parents of teens play only a minor role. Conversations generally focus mainly on “stranger danger” and the personal consequences of posting inappropriate material. These conversations are a missed opportunity, James says. “Parents can engage their children in discussions of actual online situations and encourage them to wrestle with the moral and ethical questions,” she says.
  • Peer mentorship is powerful, since the desire to fit in can encourage the ethical blind spots that kids develop. Celebrating visible examples of peer leadership is important. James found encouraging examples of teens developing social privacy agreements — mutual decisions abut what to share and how to protect one another.
  • Explicit conversations about privacy among teens are essential, and teachers and parents can foster those.

Additional Resources

  • James and her colleagues at the Good Play Project — including HGSE Professor Howard Gardner — worked with Henry Jenkins and Project New Media Literacies to create Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World. This set of curricular materials, free to download in whole or part, aims to encourage high school students to reflect on the ethical dimensions of their online environment. It presents role-playing activities and exercises that ask students to consider the ethical responsibilities of other people, and whether and how they behave ethically themselves online.
  • Here is a quick roadmap (PDF) outlining the Our Space curriculum.
  • For background about the collaboration that resulted in the Our Space casebook, see “How We Got Here” (PDF), by Henry Jenkins and Howard Gardner.
  • Research by James, Gardner, and Good Play colleagues also informs Common Sense Media’s Digital Literacy and Citizen Classroom Curriculum, a set of K–2 resources that can be downloaded for free as a series of PDFs or as an iBook.


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