Ethics Online

Matthew JohnsonAs the Internet has become more and more central to our lives, our online and offline identities have become less and less separate. Where the Internet was once a place where nobody knew we were dogs and we lived Second Lives as customizable avatars, today we mostly surf the Web as ourselves. Many of the most popular environments, such as Facebook, ask us to sign up using our real names, and even on services like Twitter, which allow for pseudonymy, people use their real names more often than not.

One area where a divide still exists between our online and offline selves, however, is in the realm of morality. While MediaSmarts’ study Young Canadians in a Wired World found that while young people are often actively kind and thoughtful towards people online – a finding supported by research from both the U.S.[1] and the UK[2] -- hostile and aggressive behaviour is also common: almost nine in ten teens in the U.S. study said that they had “seen someone being mean or cruel to another person on a social network site,” while the UK research found that “almost a third of primary school age children and a quarter of secondary school age children said that mean comments or behaviour stops them from enjoying their time online.” Moreover, even those youth who choose to act in positive ways online often describe the Internet as a place where morals and ethics by default do not apply, in which people say and do things they never would in person. What this suggests is that while young people generally have good moral instincts, they need more guidance than they’re getting about how to view the online world as a space where morals and ethics apply.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because even as adults we don’t automatically view every situation through an ethical lens. This is partly because the ethics of an action depend in part on the situation: telling someone that a friend had been diagnosed with diabetes would be morally neutral in some situations, wrong in others (if you were the friend’s doctor, for instance) and right in still others (if, for example, the friend had a job driving a bus and wasn’t managing his condition effectively, putting his passengers in danger.) We can also be made to recognize the ethical dimensions of an action we hadn’t previously considered: drinking coffee, for example, or buying clothing.

The Internet is actually surprisingly similar to a coffee shop or a department store in that it’s very easy not to see the ethical considerations of what we do. This is because we’re much more likely to feel a moral or ethical responsibility to someone for whom we feel empathy, and when we use digital media we’re prone to a number of “empathy traps.” Many of the things that trigger empathy in us – a person’s tone of voice, their body language, and their facial expression – are absent when we interact with them online. As well, people often overestimate how common negative behaviours are in general; both of these factors can make a tremendous difference in whether youth feel empathy for others, as well as how they behave. Finally, even though young people socialize online primarily with people they know offline, the fact that it’s possible to be fully or partly anonymous on the Internet – as well as the perception that you are unlikely to be punished for anything you do online – makes people feel less accountable for their actions and less responsible towards others. Because we never know precisely who’s watching us when we’re online, we’re also more vulnerable to the “bystander effect”. This is the term used to describe three factors that make people less likely to take action when they’re in a crowd:  the effect of being part of an audience, which may make us less likely to act out of fear of failure, embarrassment, or disapproval; the feeling of being less responsible for doing the right thing, because you may feel it’s somebody else’s job; and a particular sensitivity to social norms since we know we’re being observed – since most online activities, especially those popular among young people, are done in networked environments such as social networks – and as a result we can look to other members of the group for cues.

The particular things that children and youth do online can also have an effect on whether or not they see the Internet as an environment where morals and ethics apply. Video games may encourage (or even require) us to engage in acts that would normally be against our morals, such as killing people or robbing banks, in a context that’s drained of its morality because our “victims” don’t really exist and any qualms we might have about our actions are less important than our desire to win the game. Even in our interactions with other people, in multi-player games, we may do things we normally wouldn’t if the game culture values “player versus player” over collaboration. Research has shown that video games can “prime” players to be more likely to engage in prosocial or antisocial behaviour, depending on the tasks the games ask them to do.

With young people there’s a further wrinkle, which is that as they grow up they go through distinct stages of moral reasoning. As a result, whether something is right or wrong – and even whether it’s seen as an ethical issue at all – may be based on the risk of punishment, the likelihood of being rewarded for doing good, how other people feel about it, what the law says, or by universal principles of justice, all depending on the child’s age and moral development. But progression through these stages is not automatic: young people have to be both guided and challenged to grow into them, especially the later ones. This may be the biggest reason why they are unlikely to see the online world in ethical terms: while our research shows that many parents talk to younger children about online issues, these conversations seem to happen less often as young people get older.

That’s why MediaSmarts has developed a new section of its website, called Online Ethics, that helps parents and teachers give children and youth the guidance that they need in dealing with moral dilemmas such as cyberbullying, sharing other people’s online content, academic honesty and respecting intellectual property. This section is the follow-up to Stay on the Path, a suite of lessons and professional development tools we launched in 2013 which has quickly become one of our most widely-used resources.

Background Articles

Online Ethics

Tip Sheet

Do the Right Thing

Lesson Plans

Behaving Ethically Online: Ethics and Empathy (Grades 4 to 6)

Behaving Ethically Online: Ethics and Values (Grades 7 to 8)



[1] Teens, Kindness and Cruelty on Social Network Sites. Pew 2011
[2] Have Your Say: Young People’s Perspectives About Their Online Rights and Responsibilities. UK Safer Internet Centre, February 5 2013