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’ 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].

However, there is evidence that just knowing about the penalties of things like sexting [3], plagiarism [4] and driving while using cell phones [5] doesn’t make youth less likely to engage in these behaviours – possibly because the consequences seem too remote, 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. It may be that household rules on Internet use are effective not because of the penalties of breaking them, but because they communicate to children their family’s values and expectations of how they should behave.

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 overestimate how prevalent things like cyberbullying [6] are, which makes these behaviours seem more acceptable. Media products aimed at youth may also suggest that aggression and similar behaviours are normal [7], while many online spaces that are popular with youth have cultures in which bullying, sexism, racism, homophobia and similar attitudes are normalized.

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. We can also use public service campaigns to let young people know how uncommon things like bullying actually are – an approach which has a significant effect in lowering bullying rates [8].

Finally, we can 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 [9]. 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. Unlike empathy and social norms, young people seem to apply their moral judgment in the same ways online as they do offline [10].

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.

These stages start with a baby’s desire for pleasure and stimulation. There’s nothing wrong with this – it’s a key part of the curiosity that makes children learn. As they get older, children come to understand that some actions get punished and a fear of punishment becomes more important. At both these stages children’s ideas about morality are focused completely on what is good or bad for them, and other people are considered only in terms of what they can do for (or to) the child.

By the early teen years, most young people will have reached what’s called conventional morality – a moral view that’s based on the world around them more than their own desires. Fitting in and following the rules of the group are paramount. Of course, most people belong to more than one group, so teenagers may take their moral cues from the group that has the most meaning to them – typically their family or peer group – even if it conflicts with broader society.

According to Lawrence Kohlberg, who pioneered the study of moral development, many adults do not progress past this stage. Some pass temporarily into cynicism, which Kohlberg defined as rejecting standard morality without replacing it – often with the result that looks like a return to the earliest stages. Others, though, progress into the post conventional stages, where the spirit of laws becomes more important than the letter, and social conventions and laws are weighed against broader principles and may not be obeyed. (It’s worth noting that this is not the same as simply ignoring a law that’s inconvenient to you: as Martin Luther King put it, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly… and willingly accept the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice.”)

There are a number of important things to note about this progression. First, the stages describe a way of coming to a decision about a moral question; describing someone as being in a particular stage means that she makes moral judgments in that way more than half the time, and even those who are primarily at Stage V or VI make some decisions based on lower-stage reasoning. As well, children can only understand moral arguments up to one step above their current level. Small children, for instance, will not really understand an abstract principle like the “do to others as you would have them do to you,” but might understand it in the self-interested terms of Stage II as “If you’re nice to people, they’ll probably be nice to you; if you’re mean to people, they’ll think it’s okay to be mean to you.”

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 [11]?

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 can be another good opportunity to encourage moral thinking and explore moral questions. Media can teach us what kind of behaviour is punished (Stage I) or what kind is rewarded (II); we certainly learn the values of our society (Stage III) at least in part from media, as well as social codes such as expectations for gender behaviour (Stage IV). 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. Research has shown that TV frequently dismissed as mere entertainment can provoke significant discussions of moral questions among teens [12].


[1] Steeves, V. (2014). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Life Online. Ottawa: MediaSmarts, pp. 35-36. <>
[2] Kelly,A., and Ellwanger, S. Nearly One-Half of Kids Report Being Drawn to Websites by TV or Print Advertisements. MediaMark Research Inc., 2008. <>
[3] Donald S. Strassberg, Ryan Kelly McKinnon, Michael Sustaíta and Jordan Rullo. Sexting by high school students: an exploratory and descriptive study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, January 2013. <>
[4] Dennis Carter. The top 10 ways college students plagiarize. eCampus News, May 15, 2012. <>
[5] Megan Geuss. Laws against cell phone use while driving can’t curb teen texters. Ars Technica, April 7, 2013. <>
[6] Collier, Ann. Kids Deserve the Truth About Cyberbullying. NetFamilyNews, September 15, 2011. <>
[7] Nance Haxton. Cartoons, TV and pollies ‘create school bullies.’ PM, February 18, 2010. <>
[8] Craig, David W. and H. Wesley Perkins, Assessing Bullying in New Jersey Secondary Schools: Applying the Social Norms Model to Adolescent Violence, Presented at the 2008 National Conference on the Social Norms Approach, July 22, 2008. <>
[9] Jeremy Dean. <Conformity: Ten Timeless Influencers. PsyBlog, February 25, 2010. Conformity: Ten Timeless Influencers>
[10] Jackson et al. Gender, Race and Morality in the Virtual World and Its Relationship to Morality in the Real World. Sex Roles, 2009; DOI: 10.1007/s11199-009-9589-5. <>
[11] Kohlberg Dilemmas. <>
[12] 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). <>

Resources for Youth

Stay on the Path

Stay on the Path: Teaching Kids to be Safe and Ethical Online is a series of resources that aims to promote and encourage ethical online behaviours with young people. The resources include a four-lesson unit on search skills and critical thinking; a self-directed tutorial that examines the moral dilemmas that kids face in their online activities and strategies for helping youth deal with them; and three tip sheets for parents on how to teach kids to be safe and ethical online.

Learn More