Online Ethics

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This section introduces important concepts that impact our ethical behaviour such as ethical development, empathy and laws, rules and personal morality. Then we explore how these ethical concepts affect the ways that young people behave online as well as the opportunities they represent for developing digital literacy skills.

Despite all of the concerns about what youth are doing with digital media, MediaSmarts’ study Young Canadians in a Wired World (YCWW) has found that not only are most kids not getting in trouble online, they’re often being actively kind and thoughtful towards people they know.

As we grow, we pass through distinct stages of moral development in which our ethical thinking is based on different principles. The second stage in learning ethics is becoming aware of rules that either punish or reward us for doing something: younger children are most motivated by a fear of being punished for bad behaviour, but become more concerned with the rewards of good behaviour as they get older.

Empathy is at the heart of ethics. In order to develop a sense of right and wrong that goes past just being afraid of punishment or hoping for a reward, we have to be able to put ourselves in another person’s shoes.

It’s important to make young people aware of the laws that apply to what they do online, as well as to have household rules that cover online behaviour. For example, MediaSmarts’ YCWW research has found that students who have rules in the home relating to various web activities are less likely to engage in risky online behaviour [1], and another study has found a strong association between kids visiting websites mentioned in ads and an absence of household rules on Internet use [2].

There are four main ways in which other people’s personal material can be shared online. The first is when we post a photo or video that we took which has other people in it – with or without their knowledge or consent. The second is when we share material that someone else has posted – forwarding a photo that someone sent us, for example, or posting a link to someone’s video or even “Liking” someone’s Facebook post (which makes it visible to your Facebook friends as well as theirs).

With younger children, the best approach is to have a clear and consistent set of rules, both at home and at school, about sharing other people’s content.

Cyberbullying may be the area where parents and teachers are most concerned about kids behaving ethically. Though it’s not yet clear if digital media have actually increased how much bullying is going on, there’s no doubt that online bullying can have a much longer lifespan and reach a much larger audience than traditional bullying.

The good news is that many youth who witness bullying do something about it. Sixty-five percent of the students in MediaSmarts’ YCWW survey said that they had done something to help someone who was experiencing online meanness [1].

Some of the most common ethical decisions youth face online revolve around intellectual property, but teaching kids to respect intellectual property can be particularly challenging because they may not see this as an ethical issue.

Closely associated with intellectual property – but slightly different – is plagiarism.

While children as young as seven have an innate belief that copying someone else’s work is wrong [1], students may have trouble seeing plagiarism the same way because it feels like a victimless act. If nobody is hurt then we are unlikely to feel empathy, and without that it’s hard to see something as being morally wrong.

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

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