The New Wild West: Teens Navigating Ethical Decisions Online without a Sheriff
11.16.09 | There are two definitions for “mentor” on dictionary.com.
1 – A wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
2 – An influential senior sponsor or supporter.
Together they paint a picture of how most cultures perceive of mentors—someone older (parent, teacher, coach), with wisdom gained through life experience. On the Internet, however, that formula has been turned upside down.
“[Online] mentors don’t need to be older, they need to be more sophisticated,” says Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner, a principal investigator at Harvard’s Good Play Project. “Ten to 13 year olds can be mentors about how to play a game.”
In a new study examining the ethical decisions youth make online, Gardner and Harvard colleague Carrie James have discovered that the speed and ability to connect easily over great distances that has made the online world so compelling is also part of the problem when ethical issues are involved. Youth don’t always think before they act, with greater ramifications today.
“Nobody has figured out exactly how to construct an ethics and morality which is appropriate for this very new medium,” says Gardner.
“Youth move very quickly online,” James says. “But, there has to be a cost.”
In many cases, according to the study, that cost has been introspection and reflection about the broader effects of how one behaves online. The result: Youth most often think only of the immediate, individual effects of their actions and much less often about the larger community when interacting online.
So when a teen posts a picture of herself doing shots of alcohol at a party, she might only think of how her fellow friends at the party will remember the good times they had. Only rarely does she think about how all the different people she is friends with might interpret the photo, let alone acquaintances or strangers “out there.” The ramifications are long-lasting, however. It is a world in which wise counsel would come in very handy.
But, James says, “adult mentors and supports are utterly absent,” from the digital universe. The reasons for this range from an ambivalence on the part of educational institutions to being intimidated as adults by younger people’s superior knowledge of technology. The structure of mentorship has changed.
“You can see why having guides would be more important than ever,” Gardner says. “There is such large unexplained terrain. But, when they don’t exist, there will be ad hoc or consequential [decision making]. [Youth] won’t download, not because it’s wrong, but because they might get caught.”
And in this world where “anybody can post anything and anything can be changed at any time,” Gardner says things like authority and objectivity have given way to authenticity and transparency.
New Curriculum to Help Shape Ethics
With those findings, James and Gardner have teamed up with Common Sense Media to develop a middle school digital citizenship curriculum that takes a “whole community approach” by involving teachers, students and parents. Organized into six units, the first three are being tested in Omaha, the Bay Area, New York and Maine. The other three are in development in preparation for the 2010 school year.
Addressing issues that include privacy, respect for the creative work of others, cyber bullying and responsibility to a larger community, the curriculum is a way of helping children navigate a world in which they are completely engaged with digital media “in their home, school and walking around life.”
“I don’t think young people really understand that context and understand the ramifications of it,” says Linda Burch, chief education and strategy officer at Common Sense Media. “Issues of privacy, what do they really want to share online, how does it represent them? When it gets out of control and spreads, how do they manage that in terms of their own sense of self?”
The goal, she says, is not just to explain that you shouldn’t plagiarize or how one gets or gives attribution for work.
“These kids are creating civilizations, and they don’t understand the power of the technology and haven’t really reflected on who they want to be and what they want to create,” Burch says. “[The curriculum] is a new, much more empowered, way of getting kids to think.”
Tips for Parents
Although adults and parents are seldom mentors in their children’s lives online, Burch says there are ways in which they can have a positive impact right now.
1.) A parent’s role is to understand their kid’s digital lives and world. They have to embrace it and dig in.
This means creating a Facebook profile (without spying on your kids). It means sitting with your child while she plays a game. It means understanding the content they view, who they are connecting with and the benefits they get out of their activities online. It means understanding what your child finds attractive about what he or she is doing in the digital world.
2.) You can’t cover your kids eyes, but you can teach them to see.
A parent’s job is to be a guide. This mean’s knowing what your kids are doing and imparting your values to them, which, Burch says, is “different from being Big Brother.”
“It’s more like sitting in your living room and watching them in the yard or on the street,” she says. “You’re aware, but you’re not there all the time.”
3.) Set boundaries and have a dialogue.
“If you’re not clear, [your children] don’t know what you are thinking,” At Common Sense Media, she says, the first thing they do is educate parents about things like cookies, virtual worlds and avatars, then talk about why those concepts matter and what they can discuss with their children.
Learning the background and knowing the positive aspects of their child’s online lives allows the parents to set boundaries and convey values in a manner that their children will understand, and hopefully respect.
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