Challenges to Ethical Thinking Online

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.

So far we’ve focused on the various reasons why youth usually make good choices. There are some factors that can make us more likely to make bad choices, though, and a number of situations that may lead us to make bad choices despite our best intentions.


The online world contains a number of “empathy traps”: some or all of the things that would generally trigger empathy in us – a person’s tone of voice, their body language and their facial expression – can be absent when we interact with them online. This can lead us to say or do things that we wouldn't do offline.

Here are some tips to help youth avoid empathy traps online:

  • Remember that the people we talk to and play with online are real people. Even if you don't know them offline, try to imagine a person sitting next to you before you say or type anything.
  • Don't respond right away. When something happens that gets you upset, take some time to let the first rush of anger or fear fade away.
  • If you can, talk things out in person rather than online. Remember that other people can't tell how you're feeling online either, so it's easy for drama to blow up.
  • Talk to your friends and family about how you're feeling. Kids consistently say that just having someone listen to them is one of the most effective ways of dealing with online conflict [1]. If you can't talk to someone you know, you can turn to helplines like Kids Help Phone.
  • Don't ask your posse to back you up. Research suggests that getting the same message over and over again – even if it's from your friends taking your side in an argument – can make angry feelings a lot more intense [2]. It can also make the drama spread and turn into a much bigger conflict.
  • Keep an eye on how you're feeling! It's hard to make good decisions when you're mad, scared or embarrassed. If your heart is racing or you're feeling tense, it's time to get offline for a while. 

A second issue is that young people often overestimate how common negative online behaviours are in general. This can also make a tremendous difference in whether youth feel empathy for others, as well as how they behave. Finally, even though youth 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.


Just as there are situations that make us less likely to feel empathy for others, there are also times where we are more likely to revert to lower levels of moral reasoning. Any time we’re doing something mostly for external rewards, rather than because we want to do it, we’re more likely to take moral shortcuts: the less value we place on what we’re doing, the more likely we are to conclude that “if a thing isn’t worth doing, it isn’t worth doing right.” We are also more likely to make bad choices if we’re asked to do something we don’t feel we’re able to do: because we see the task itself as being unfair we feel justified in not following the rules.

All of these factors can overlap, and we can also be influenced by social norms: the more a culture values external rewards or punishments, the less pressure we feel to act morally [3].

Being part of a group can also have an effect on whether or not we do the right thing [4]. Psychologists call this “the bystander effect” and have identified three key aspects of it. First, the effect of being part of an audience, which may make us less likely to act out of fear of failure, embarrassment or disapproval; this may be particularly powerful online because you are never sure who may see you, either now or in the future. Being part of a group can also make you feel less responsible for doing the right thing because you may feel like it’s somebody else’s job. Finally, we’re particularly sensitive to social norms when we’re in a group – even a virtual one such as a network of Facebook friends – since we know we’re being observed and can look to other members of the group for cues [5].

Psychologists have also identified several different ways in which we can convince ourselves that a bad choice is really a good one. These are called rationalizations because they are basically arguments we have with ourselves to ignore our conscience. We can minimize the harm of an action by defining it as something less serious, saying it was “just a joke” or “a little white lie.”  MediaSmarts' research has shown that one of the most common justifications for being mean or cruel to someone online was that it was “just a joke” [6].

A variation on this is when we choose to focus more heavily on the benefits of an action and less on the negative consequences. In some cases we can deny the harm altogether, saying that it “only looks bad” or that the harm was exaggerated. We may also shift the blame by saying that someone else was more at fault (this is the rationalization at the heart of the bystander effect) or that the fault actually lies with the victim.

Similarly, we may justify something because of harms done to us – “I’m not doing anything worse than what was done to me” – or because we feel we’ve earned the right to not be judged (“After everything I’ve done, you’d think they’d let this slide.”). The most extreme rationalization is when we entirely dehumanize the victim, essentially saying they don’t deserve any empathy whatsoever. This is most commonly associated with racism and other forms of hate, but things like multiplayer games and YouTube comments show how digital media can make it easy to treat someone in this way [7].


[1] Youth Voice Project. <>
[2] Englander, Elizabeth Kandel. Bullying and cyberbullying: what every educator needs to know. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press, 2013.
[3] Jason Stephens. Why Students Plagiarize (webcast). <>
[4] Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10, 215–221; Latane’, B and Nida, S (1981) Ten years of research on group size and helping, Psychological Bulletin Vol 89, No 2 308-324. <>
[5] Nancy Willard. Influencing Positive Peer Interventions: A Synthesis of the Research Insight. October 2012. <>
[6] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats. MediaSmarts, 2014. <>
[7] Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognition theory of moral thought and action. In W. M.Kurtines & J. L. Gewirtz (Eds.), Handbook of moral behavior and development (Vol. 1, pp. 45-96). Hillsdale, NJ:Lawrence Erlbaum. <>