Online Ethics - Introduction

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.

In fact, an American study from 2011 found that more than two-thirds of teens who use social media say that youth are generally kind to one another when using social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter [1]. Similarly, a 2013 study from the UK found that youth of all ages felt it was their responsibility to support their friends online [2].

However, on the flip side, one-third of students from the YCWW study also reported having threatened or been mean or cruel to someone online [3] and almost nine in ten teens in the American study said that they had “seen someone being mean or cruel to another person on a social network site.” [4] The UK study, meanwhile, 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.” [5]

What this suggests is that while youth generally recognize that they have certain responsibilities online – particularly to their friends – they need more guidance than they’re getting about how to act ethically online. Research done by MediaSmarts and other organizations suggests that young people do pay attention to the messages they get from parents, teachers and community leaders about ethical behaviour, but if they don’t get the instruction they need – and if it doesn’t keep pace with how their moral thinking develops as they get older – they take their cues from peers or popular media instead.

This section introduces important concepts that impact our ethical behaviour such as ethical development, empathy and laws, rules and personal morality. Then we explore how these ethical concepts affect the ways that young people behave online as well as the opportunities they represent for developing digital literacy skills.


[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. <>
[3] Steeves, Valerie. Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Cyberbullying: Dealing with Online Meanness, Cruelty and Threats. MediaSmarts, 2014. <>
[4] Pew
[5] J.R. Rest. Moral Development. 1986.

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.

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