Behaving Ethically Online: Ethics and Empathy

In this lesson, students are introduced to the idea that “hot” emotional states such as anger or excitement can make it harder for them to control how they act. They also discuss the concept of empathy and look at the ways in which digital communication can make it harder to feel empathy for other people. Students then read scenarios that portray two sides of an online conflict and consider how to resolve them, using their discussion to build a list of tools for emotional management and conflict resolution online. Finally, students create a media product that explains and reminds them of one of those tools.


Building Empathy in Children and Teens - Tip Sheet

How can we help young people develop affective empathy? The best approach depends on how old they are. Children begin to understand empathy as toddlers, but at this stage they are so completely “in the moment” that the best approach is to watch out for situations where we can model and talk about empathy with them. When a child does something or witnesses something that makes somebody feel sad, quietly explain to them how and why it made them feel that way. (It can be valuable to do this with other emotions, such as fear and happiness, as well.)

Behaving Ethically Online: Ethics and Values

In this lesson, students consider how we come to hold values and how they affect our behaviour, especially online. They begin by comparing their assumptions about how common positive and negative online behaviours are with accurate statistics, and then consider how believing that something is more or less common than it really is can affect whether or not we think it’s acceptable. The teacher then uses a fable to introduce students to the ways that values can be communicated both overtly and implicitly and students discuss the ways in which their values have been communicated to them. They then turn specifically to the online context and consider what values they have learned about online behaviour and how they learned them. Finally, students consider scenarios that examine ethical questions online and role-play ways of resolving them.


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).

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.

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