Laws, Rules and Personal Morality

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’ Young Canadians in a Wireless World 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[i], while other research has found correlations between household rules and lower rates of engaging in cyberbullying[ii] and experiencing it[iii] as well as a variety of other risky behaviours.[iv]

However, there is evidence that just knowing about the penalties of things like sexting[v], plagiarism[vi] and driving while using cell phones[vii] doesn’t make youth less likely to engage in these behaviours – possibly because the consequences seem too remote and don’t seem real[viii], and also because tweens and teens are at a stage in their moral development where they’re less motivated by fear of punishment and more by a desire to fit in with social conventions. As well, young people often do not apply their moral judgement in the same ways online as they do offline: one study found that moral disengagement was “significantly higher within online interactions when compared to face-to-face contexts and that online moral disengagement…mediated the relationship between online moral identity and immoral online behaviours.”[ix] It may be that household rules on internet use are effective not because there are penalties for breaking them, but because they communicate to children their family’s values and expectations of how they should behave – and that those values apply as much online as offline.

Household rules are an example of what’s called social norming – influencing people by making them more aware of how their peers behave. One of the challenges is that we often have a distorted idea of what is normal or common. Young people often don’t understand how easy it is to become a part of the problem within cyberbullying, such as by sharing or liking a hurtful message.[x] Their lack of knowledge surrounding the prevalence of cyberbullying makes these behaviours seem more acceptable to them since they do not know any better. Media products aimed at youth may also suggest that aggression and similar behaviours are normal,[xi] while many online spaces popular with youth have cultures in which bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia and similar attitudes are normalized.

As with empathy, we can’t directly teach young people to develop personal morality – but we can encourage it. It’s well established by research that direct “moral education” doesn’t have any lasting effect, but encouraging youth to consider moral dilemmas – which favour situations with no clear answer to force people to weigh different moral principles against one another – can help guide children through the stages of moral development.

An example of a moral dilemma used by Kohlberg is a story about a twelve-year-old girl named Judy who was saving money to go to a concert. By the time of the concert she had saved up enough money to go, plus another five dollars, but her mother told her that the family’s budget was tight and that the money would have to go to paying for Judy’s new clothes. The initial dilemma is whether Judy should give her mother all the money or lie about how much she saved, only give the five dollars she doesn’t need, and then go to the concert secretly. Would the answer be different if Judy’s money had come as a gift rather than being earned? How about if Judy’s mother had previously promised that she could go to the concert if she earned the money herself?[xii]

Keep in mind that children give the most value to a moral argument one stage above where they are. A moral dilemma like this one could be used to help guide a child from Stage II to Stage III (ask the child what would happen to the family if Judy’s parents don’t feel like they can trust her) or Stage III to Stage IV (ask which is more important: Judy’s mother’s authority or the promise she made?).

Media and morality

Media can be another good opportunity to encourage moral thinking and explore moral questions.[xiii] Even though we know they’re not real, we bring our morality to the media we use and consume[xiv],[xv] and they shape our morality as well.[xvi] Because media are constructions that we instinctively take as representing reality, they teach us what kind of behaviour is punished (Stage I) or what kind is rewarded (II); we learn the norms and values of our society (Stage III) at least in part from media, as well as social codes (Stage IV). Many people, for example, report that their attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people have been changed due to an increase in positive portrayals of in media – likely perceived by many as an expression of changing social attitudes on the issue, according to Stage III reasoning[xvii] – while media activities like playing video games have been linked to moral development in teens[xviii] and media depictions of social aggression have been shown to increase that behaviour in girls.[xix] Online celebrities such as YouTubers, influencers and video game streamers also often engage in harassment, hate speech or feuds (real or staged) with other celebrities – for which they are supported by their audience and, more often than not, rewarded by platforms that are designed to favor the most ‘engaging’ content.[xx]

Rather than letting our children learn passively from media, though, we can ask that they put themselves in a character’s shoes and imagine what they would have done.[xxi] Research has shown that media can foster moral development youth and children, but only if parents or teachers take the time to help them explore the moral questions and dilemmas portrayed.[xxii] There is evidence that media texts that were intentionally made to help people explore moral dilemmas can be effective in fostering moral development.[xxiii] Presenting a moral challenge in fiction can be very challenging, however: one issue is that if readers or viewers are too deeply immersed in the story, they may not be inclined to view it from a moral perspective. They can still receive unconscious messages about morality, of course, based on how characters are punished or rewarded and on the social attitudes expressed, but the value of weighing morals against one another is lost.

Another concern is that even when media products attempt to present moral dilemmas, they more often than not “stack the deck” in favour of one interpretation: this may be why genres with less black-and-white narratives are associated with more moral judgment.[xxiv] For example, media ranging from TV series such as Homeland and 24 to movies like Zero Dark 30 and Zootopia raise questions about the rightness of using torture as part of an investigation of terrorism – but because this is nearly always done in the context of a “ticking clock” counting down to a terrorist attack and torture is wrongly depicted as being effective in getting valuable information, these texts prevent any discussion about the morality of using it.[xxv] The producers of 24 were actually asked by the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point to do “a show where torture backfires” because he feared young soldiers and intelligence agents were getting the message that torture was both effective (Stage II) and socially and morally acceptable (Stages III-VI).[xxvi]

Fortunately, there are ways to counter this. To start, we can teach youth media literacy skills that help them to recognize the artificial nature of media products and to understand the reasons why aggression and meanness are so much more common in media than in real life.

Media can also be used as a springboard for discussing moral questions – researchers have found that spending just thirty seconds talking about the moral issues in a media text can help kids’ moral development.[xxvii] Here is a list of questions from Empatico to help lead home or classroom discussions about characters’ moral choices:

  • Why do you think the character did ______? Are there other explanations for this?
  • Why do you think the character assumed _____?
  • What was influencing the character when they decided to ______?
  • What could the character do to investigate whether their assumptions are true or not?
  • How can we apply this situation/lesson to our own lives?
  • Have you ever experienced something like this?
  • How did your thinking change as you learned more about the situation?[xxviii]

Our tip sheet Co-Viewing With Your Kids has more advice on how to help your kids learn to ask critical questions about media.

We can also empower and encourage young people to stand up for their beliefs, even when they’re in environments where negative behaviours and attitudes are the norm. Studies have shown that members of a group are much less likely to conform to the group’s attitudes if even one person expresses a different opinion.[xxix] This is one reason why it’s so important to encourage young people to develop their own personal morality. The other reason, of course, is that because most youth move through many different environments and cultures, both online and off, the only way to make sure they make consistently good choices is to help them come to their own sense of right and wrong. While this may sometimes mean they come to moral positions that are different from ours, when dealing with older teens we need to respect the thought and consideration they’ve put into the issues.


[i] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, pp. 35-36. Retrieved from

[ii]Álvarez-García, D., Núñez, J. C., García, T., & Barreiro-Collazo, A. (2018). Individual, family, and community predictors of cyber-aggression among adolescents. European journal of psychology applied to legal context, 10(2), 79-88.

[iii] Khurana, A., Bleakley, A., Jordan, A. B., & Romer, D. (2015). The protective effects of parental monitoring and internet restriction on adolescents’ risk of online harassment. Journal of youth and Adolescence, 44(5), 1039-1047.

[iv] Álvarez-García, D., Núñez, J. C., González-Castro, P., Rodríguez, C., & Cerezo, R. (2019). The effect of parental control on cyber-victimization in adolescence: the mediating role of impulsivity and high-risk behaviors. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 1159.

[v] Strassberg, D, McKinnon, R, Sustaíta, M, & Rullo, J. (2013) Sexting by high school students: an exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior. Retrieved from

[vi] Cleary, M (2017) Top 10 reasons students plagiarise and what teachers can do about it. Phi Delta Kappan: the professional journal for educators. Retrieved from

[vii] Geuss, M. (2013). Laws against cell phone use while driving can’t curb teen texters. Ars Technica. Retrieved from

[viii] Yin, S. (2019). How to keep teens drivers’ eyes on the road, and their fingers off the keyboard. WHYY PBS. Retrieved from

[ix] Saulnier, L. (2019). Moral Identity, Moral Disengagement, and Online Behaviour from Adolescence to Young Adulthood. Wilred Laurier University. 2121.

[x] (2018). What is cyberbullying? Public Safety Canada. Retrieved from

[xi] Haxton, N (2010). Cartoons, TV and pollies ‘create school bullies.’ PM. Retrieved from

[xii] Kohlberg Dilemmas.

[xiii] Irlene Sandra and Dorr, Aimee, 2002. “Teen Television as a Stimulus for Moral Dilemma Discussion.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New Orleans, LA, April 1-5, 2002).

[xiv] Ferchaud, A., & Beth Oliver, M. (2019). It’s my choice: The effects of moral decision-making on narrative game engagement. Journal of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, 11(2), 101-118

[xv] Weber, R., Popova, L., & Mangus, J. M. (2013). Universal morality, mediated narratives, and neural synchrony. Media and the moral mind, 26-42.

[xvi] Mastro, D., Enriquez, M., Bowman, N.D., Prabhu, S., & Tamborini R. (2013). Universal morality, mediated narratives, and neural synchrony. Media and the moral mind, 26-42.

[xvii] (2010) 2009-2010 Network Responsibility Index. GLAAD.

[xviii] Hodge, S. E., Taylor, J., & McAlaney, J. (2019). It’s Double Edged: The Positive and Negative Relationships Between the Development of Moral Reasoning and Video Game Play Among Adolescents. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 28.

[xix] Martins, N., & Wilson, B. J. (2012). Social aggression on television and its relationship to children's aggression in the classroom. Human Communication Research, 38(1), 48-71.

[xx] Tekinbas K.S. (2020) Raising Good Gamers: Envisioning an Agenda for Diversity, Inclusion, and Fair Play. Connected Learning Lab

[xxi] Krcmar, M. (2013). The effect of media on children’s moral reasoning. Media and the moral mind, 198-217.

[xxii] Nikos-Rose, K (2019). Moral lessons in Children’s television programs may require extra explanation to be effective. UC Davis. Retrieved from

[xxiii] Zagal, J. P. (2009, September). Ethically Notable Videogames: Moral Dilemmas and Gameplay. In DiGRA conference.

[xxiv] Black, J. E., Capps, S. C., & Barnes, J. L. (2018). Fiction, genre exposure, and moral reality. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 12(3), 328.

[xxv] Delehanty, C., & Kearns, E. M. (2020). Wait, There’s Torture in Zootopia? Examining the Prevalence of Torture in Popular Movies. Perspectives on Politics, 18(3), 835-850.

[xxvi] Regan, Tom. Does ‘24’ encourage US interrogators to ‘torture’ detainees? The Christian Science Monitor, February 12 2007.

[xxvii] Wong, M. (2019) “Explaining moral lessons in media can help children behave more prosocially.” The Aggie. Retrieved from

[xxviii] Empatico. (n.d.) Practice Exercises: Critical Thinking. Retrieved from

[xxix] Dean, J (2010). Conformity: Ten Timeless Influencers. PsyBlog.