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 , and another study has found a strong association between kids visiting websites mentioned in ads and an absence of household rules on Internet use .
Though we sometimes talk about the online world as being “virtual reality,” the things we do there can have real consequences. When we’re using the same screen to talk to our friends that we use to kill aliens or when we can’t see the people we’re hurting, robbing or copying from, it’s easy to forget that what we do online matters. This section looks at some of the reasons why youth might behave differently online than they do offline and strategies for getting them to see the online world through an ethical lens.
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.
While children as young as seven have an innate belief that copying someone else’s work is wrong , 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.
Closely associated with intellectual property – but slightly different – is plagiarism.
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.