Babies with Superpowers—Ethics and the New Digital Media
11.16.09 | Young people today have been called “babies with superpowers”; because of their technical skills, they can do so much with digital tools, yet they do not necessarily understand what their actions mean and what effects those actions can bring.
Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Carrie James and Howard Gardner, and other colleagues, investigate the ethical contours in “People, Ethics and the New Digital Media,” a MacArthur Series report. They draw from more than 30 interviews with academic experts, industry representatives, educators and youth to focus on five issues: identity; privacy; ownership and authorship; credibility; and participation.
These issues are, and have long been, considered important offline ethical realms. Yet in digital spaces, they may carry new, or at least distinct, ethical stakes. This report laid the groundwork for a new study by Gardner and James, which they discuss in this related Spotlight story, “The New Wild West.”
Below, we summarize the perils and promises that the authors find await youth in the digital world.
Adolescence is a time for forming identity. Self-reflection is an important part of that process. Self-reflection can also help develop broader social and ethical skills. Online, teens can experiment with identity by adopting different names, writing styles and personas for their digital “selves,” and they do so on a larger and more public stage.
Promises of online spaces for shaping identity
• Young people are able to express different aspects of themselves in a supportive online environment.
• They can consciously reflect on their choices as they “write themselves into being” online, as social media researcher danah boyd has described it.
• They can elicit constructive feedback from others, helping them to reconcile their self-conceptions with society’s appraisals of them.
• Identity experimentation can cross over to deception. Whether deception is conscious or simply part of the online “play” depends on the expectations of those involved, expectations that are frequently not explicit.
• Youth are free to explore harmful identities, with little consensus about appropriate decorum.
• Youth who try on too many identities may fail to develop a coherent sense of self.
• The opportunities for self-reflection may be overshadowed by self-promotion or a dependence on feedback from others. If online is a stage and online persona are created with an eye to entertaining viewers, deep and genuine self-reflection may be fleeting.
Offline, “privacy” is an entitlement, a “right to privacy.” Yet the Internet bears on privacy in new ways. Information posted is often permanent, it can be searched and easily passed around, and audiences are largely invisible. A “culture of disclosure” is emerging with a distinct set of beliefs, norms and practices. The ethical challenge is for youth to learn to develop the proper distance—close, but not too close; distant, but not too distant.
Promises of emerging norms on online privacy
• Expressing oneself online in a blog or Facebook can develop creative skills and foster a sense of pride in one’s work.
• Sharing life stories can also create communities of support around shared struggles.
• Sharing openly can help youth develop a sense of ethical responsibility. Many youth who elect to disclose more information online conceive of privacy that presumes responsible conduct on the part of their audiences. If consciously construed and made explicit, these presumptions could help endow youth with an ethics of responsibility.
• Young people risk losing control of their identity, reputation and sense of safety. Disclosure, therefore, engenders responsibilities to others to handle the personal information with care.
• Pretending to be someone you are not can be harmful to others. Yet some parents prefer their children assume fictitious identities for safety purposes. The line between benign and malicious deception can be difficult for young people to discern.
Ownership and Authorship
Offline, credit and profit are given to creators, and failing to give attribution results in legal and social sanction. Online, young people embrace an “infringing culture” where immediate access to information and goods is expected. Past conceptions of ownership, authorship, and copyright are contested. Young people are caught between old and new modes, giving rise to confusion about what constitutes ethical appropriation.
Promises of shifting concepts of ownership
• Youth today have many more opportunities for collaborating and participating in “knowledge communities,” which can empower youth to become engaged citizens and successful workers.
• Youth also have greater access to information, and they are exposed to rich intellectual exchange. The barriers to participation are also lower. This creates more active and critically engaged young users who are empowered to act rather than just watch or react.
• Corporate entities can exploit youths’ co-creations.
• Youth can abuse information and content by, for example, sharing files illegally.
• Youth may hold little regard for the integrity of their own and other’s work, and to deny the responsibilities to others.
• This sense of entitlement may become a habit of mind that is then extended to other contexts, such as school.
Offline, credibility is conveyed through credentials and integrity in actions. Online, as the famous New Yorker cartoon puts it, “nobody knows you’re a dog.” Genuine credibility hinges on being truthful and transparent about one’s competence (and its limits) and one’s motives. Nurturing this understanding in youth will help to ensure ethical behavior.
Promises of lower barriers to participation
• Youth have unparalleled opportunities to develop and demonstrate knowledge and skills, assume leadership roles, and gain credibility even at a relatively early ages.
• The online world does not bar people from entry simply because they lack formal training and credentials, which can be empowering for young people.
• There is ample room for misdeeds, including deception and misrepresentation.
• The desire to participate coupled with the perception from the offline world that credentials matter might lead youth to misrepresent their qualifications.
• External parties may impose restrictive rules, erect barriers to access, and stifle participatory cultures.
Offline, standards have been developed for creating balance when presenting and defending positions or arguments. Often these standards preclude youth and rely on gatekeepers such as scientists or journalists. Online, standards of behavior are less explicit. Users can also more readily create content and state positions. These conditions require youth to consider the broader implications of their conduct and creations.
Promises of more open participation
• Youth can assume leadership, mentoring and educator roles; they can build key skills and a sense of efficacy; and they are exposed to a wide range of ideas, opinions and perspectives.
• Participants from all walks of life can create and distribute their creations freely.
• Participation online may mobilize young people to social and political action.
• Digital divides persist. As skills such as multitasking, risk-taking and mental flexibility become increasingly valuable in the workplace, nondigital youth may be left behind.
• Individuals can engage in hate speech and other forms of misconduct online, which may be encouraged by the web’s anonymity and the short response time.
• The absence of accountability structures means that little or no recourse exists for victims.
• A sense of community may be fleeting and carry less meaning online as participants join temporarily or roam from one community to the next.
• Online communities of like interests can be echo chambers of their members’ opinions and preclude dialogue across the public sphere.
• The potential for invigorating democracy does not guarantee it will be realized.
Where to From Here?
New digital media is in essence a playground for youth. Five factors can contribute to “good play”; that is, conduct that is both meaningful and engaging while being responsible to others.
1) The technologies themselves and the structural features that invite participation.
2) The media literacy of youth, including technical, social, and ethical skills.
3) Individual factors such cognitive and moral skills gained through experience and with age, as well as one’s more stable beliefs and values formed offline.
4) Online peer culture that promotes certain behaviors.
5) The ethical supports that adults can provide or that can be built into digital media themselves.
The burden of good play currently falls on youth. The structures of the technologies themselves set few limitations, creating both tremendous promises and significant perils for young people. At the same time, detrimental peer cultures exist and ethical supports are minimal. For the promises of digital media to be realized, we must develop better supports for ethical skills, or better yet, “ethical minds.”
Photo by: sean dreilinger
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