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Harvard study finds youth lack online ethics

Yesterday afternoon, Carrie James, Harvard research director, presented her findings of US youth online behavior around ethics at Mashable’s Social Good Summit. What Carrie found was interesting. Generally speaking, the youth she interviewed seemed to display little to no consideration of ethics in their behavior and interactions online.

This was a strong statement. So what did she mean by online ethics?

Ethics were defined by five areas of study, with a focus on the last one for the presentation: identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility, and participation. Participation was the way youth interacted and behaved online in a way that on the one hand may involve hate speech in social forums and cheating in mass multi-player games, and on the other hand how youth may leverage social sites like Facebook only to circulate funny videos rather than sharing more serious ideas, struggles, and contributing to civic, political, and humanitarian causes.

Carrie’s research surfaced five major findings that youth displayed in regards to online behavior:

1) A high level of consequence thinking. Their thinking or actions online were very individualistic in nature with a general disregard for others.
2) Some moral thinking in certain youth where online choices did take others into consideration, but only others that the youth personally knew.
3) A scarcity of ethical thinking, with a general disregard for the impact of a choice on others outside those the youth had close relationships with. In particular, the subject of illegal music download was raised.
4) The perception that the Internet is only for fun and is inconsequential. There is a sense that even if they see something disturbing, they lack the power to influence the situation or to make a difference and quickly move on.
5) An absence of moral and ethical supports and role models.

Implications of the findings were that there are untapped opportunities to engage youth far more in citizenship, civic and political participation, and leveraging social media for social good.

Overall, her talk was great food for thought. For myself, a number of immediate questions came to mind.

1) Was illegal music download the primary gauge on scarcity in ethical thinking? The world and the way music and general media consumption happens is evolving so quickly with membership streaming sites like Grooveshark becoming the norm. It feels like music downloads are becoming an obsolete measure of ethics, because cultural norms and expectations have evolved far beyond that. The music industry itself is changing with new forms of licensing agreements in place, and musicians exploring different avenues to get their music out. Radiohead broke through in 2007 by releasing their In Rainbows album as a digital download and asking their fans to pay what they wanted for the album. More recently, Arcarde Fire released their innovative new interactive online music video, The Wilderness Downtown, which allowed users to select their hometown and watch the personalized music video come to life.

2) Although US youth are not found to demonstrate high efficacy in their online social behavior towards civic, political, or humanitarian causes, is that the real measure of social good? Is that what we want? Are online measures indicative of youth engagement offline as well, or is there a missing holistic perspective here? In particular, the comment around the tendency to share funny videos, rather than deep thoughts and ideas online is interesting, as this starts creeping into the territory of personal privacy.

3) How does this study fit into the larger context of youth and social orientation? What’s interesting is that generally, today’s youth also seem to be far more engaged and concerned about global issues such as social responsibility, climate change, and human rights than perhaps the previous generation. The mindset now for social change is less about the more traditional civic and political engagement, but as global citizens. Are activities with civic, political, and humanitarian organizations and initiatives the right measure of social involvement and ethical behavior?

4) What was the sample size of those interviewed was, how were they selected, and what questions were related with the ethical categories and findings? Carrie mentioned both tweens and youth aged 15-25 in the study; at the same time, we don’t know how representative the study was across the country, what the mix was, and the indicators leading to the results.

Finally, I couldn’t help but think of what the results might have been in other parts of the world. Upon listening to her talk, what immediately came to mind were the Iranian protests last year that was later coined the “Twitter Revolution”. Thousands of people – youth included – took to Twitter and other forms of social media to tell the world of their struggles and cause. Hundreds of them were later rounded up, tortured and many even killed. The government eventually shut down mobile channels and many websites. Communication was broken. It made me think, how different things are in other parts of the world.

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