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‘Disconnected’: Crucial book for closing the ‘ethics gap’ online

I don’t know about the millions of people in developing countries going online for the first time with mobile phones but, here in the developed world, something strange happened when we moved onto the Web nearly 20 years ago. It’s as if we checked our thousands of years of social-norms and ethics development at the door of cyberspace. Somehow we saw that space as “technology” and got stuck there – even as, more and more, we socialized, learned, created, collaborated, played, worked, shopped, gave, protested, helped and harmed each other in it. How is it not obvious how much we need those norms and ethics – how they protect us and make things go better in cyberspace too?

Disconnected book coverSomehow there was and still is a disconnect. That’s what I think an important new book – Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, by Carrie James at the Harvard School of Education – is about. The result of six years of surveys and interviews with tweens, teens and young adults by the 14 researchers of Harvard University’s Good Play Project, Disconnected focuses on youth and “the moral and ethical sensibilities [they] bring, or fail to bring, to their participation on the Internet,” James writes.

But the book is also very much about our generation – parents, educators, policymakers – and how we approached the Internet and our work with young people using it. Citing the work of sociologist Christian Smith, James writes that the ethical blind spots he, his co-authors of Lost in Translation and her own research team found “point to larger sociological forces as well as the failure of adults to provide young people with ‘intellectual tools’ and other supports for thinking about and leading a moral life.”

Why the disconnect?

What caused that failure? A convergence of challenging conditions, from what I’ve observed over 17+ years as a participant/observer in the Internet safety discourse: a new kind of space that quickly went from connecting documents to connecting people; the rapid adoption of that fast-changing technology, with young people often the earliest adopters (and adapters of the media to their interests); mostly negative press; a series of moral panics (fear of the impact of tech on lives and societies, fear of the unknown); increasingly busy lives crowding out reflection time; and our own struggles to adopt connected media wisely and fold it into our policymaking at household, school and government levels. To name a few.

Maybe those conditions complicated our moral reasoning about online behavior, or maybe we found it too time-consuming, but it went missing in our messaging and parenting. That could be because we thought of the media and devices as tools, and we don’t usually apply moral reasoning to using a chef’s knife or riding a bike. It could be we thought of kids only as individual consumers and potential victims of digital media, rather than participants in peer groups and co-creators of the social conditions of their communities. But whatever the reason, hiding in plain sight has been the vital missing piece in digital safety education.

Beyond consequence thinking

For about a decade and a half, “Internet safety” has been focusing almost exclusively on what James and her research team call “consequence thinking” – the impacts of online speech and behaviors on oneself, one’s reputation, one’s future prospects, etc. That’s not enough in social, peer-to-peer (or “user-driven”) media, whose conditions unprecedentedly call for moral and ethical thinking. Consequence thinking is only the first level in “the framework of ways of thinking that we used to analyze young people’s narratives about online life,” James writes, and if we truly want to reduce harassment, trolling, bullying and other social cruelty in digital spaces, we need to move beyond it and put the full framework to work:

  • Consequence thinking – where “the sense of responsibility is narrowly focused on the self” (e.g., “will I get into trouble if I share my party photos on Instagram, and are the rewards worth the risks?”). Nothing wrong with that, of course: “A degree of it is certainly advisable, if not vital,” James writes, but if it’s the sole focus of digital safety and wellness education, then “the social moral, and ethical character of the Web suffers,” she writes.
  • Moral thinking – considering the impact on “known others,” such as a close friend or family member (how would she feel if I posted a photo of her on Twitter?). “‘Playing nice’ – treating other individuals with respect and civility on social networks, in blogs, and in online games” is an example James uses for applying “moral thinking” to digital activity.
  • Ethical thinking – considering the impact on “distant, unknown individuals” and one’s community. For example, using it “could mean considering how different users of Wikipedia (e.g., younger and older people, more and less educated people) might benefit from new information or be harmed by misinformation posed on the collective online encyclopedia,” she writes.

Although “young people should be considering all three,” James writes, “more often than not, the young people we interviewed were principally, if not exclusively, concerned with their own interests when making decisions online.” What will come to the rescue is literacy education. Instruction in all three literacies of digital social media – media and social literacy, as well as digital literacy – involves the reflection, perspective taking and ethical reasoning that get children (and all of us) past mere consequence thinking and foster a sense of community. [This is a recommendation in the June 2014 report of the Aspen Task Force on Learning & the Internet. Ideally, as a society, we’ll get social-emotional learning as well as media and digital literacy into every school.]

How to reconnect

Back in 2010, I heard a talk James gave about the Good Play Project’s early findings (see this), and she said there were two things they heard a lot from their 15-to-25-year-old interview subjects: that the Internet is “just for fun” (at best entertainment or distraction from homework) and that they felt “a lack of efficacy online – if they see something unsettling they tend to ignore it or move on because they don’t feel they can change anything online.” Even then it was clear that, for too long, we’ve been characterizing young people as potential victims online, seeing their media almost entirely as a source of risk and focusing on blocking media and monitoring and controlling its users. We’ve been taking away their agency, even though agency – along with autonomy, respect for others, responsibility, etc. – is key to moral development (see Chapter 5). No wonder they feel ineffective in (what we see as) their inconsequential, risky media. And no wonder there’s a disconnect between ethics and online actions!

In the Twittersphere and blogosphere, I see so many people talking about what a dark, cruel space social media is and how rampant online harassment and bullying have become. It isn’t true; I’ve blogged the numbers where young people are concerned (e.g., here). And spreading that message only increases users’ helplessness. We need to stop doing that with our children. The final chapter of Disconnected is about reconnecting, how to close the ethics gap and cultivate a different kind of mindset: sensitivity to the ethics of situations our kids find themselves in online and how crucial this is in media where “our online choices have the potential to touch countless lives,” as James writes. There’s an urgent need for the “conscientious connectivity” that she calls for in her last chapter – for everybody’s wellbeing and efficacy in social media. This is true “online safety.” We won’t get there until we shift our own mindset from blocking, monitoring and controlling our kids and their media to empathically, open-heartedly engaging with them in its effective, ethical use.


SIDEBAR: Curricula for ‘community creatures’

In his foreword to Disconnected, University of Southern California media professor Henry Jenkins quotes the late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck as saying that we know we’re social creatures, we just don’t yet see ourselves as community creatures. Why does that matter? Because a sense of belonging, citizenship, commonality, social norms and codes of ethics develop when people see themselves as part of a community, and those developments support well-being and safety within the community. Here are two resources for turning social creatures into community creatures which have resulted from the brilliant collaboration between the New Media Literacies Project that was led by Dr. Jenkins and the Good Play Project led by Disconnected author Carrie James:

“Our Space: Being a Responsible Citizen of the Digital World”: described by its creators at USC and Harvard as “a set of curricular materials designed to encourage high school students to reflect on the ethical dimensions of their participation in new media environments. Through role-playing activities and reflective exercises, students are asked to consider the ethical responsibilities of other people, and whether and how they behave ethically themselves online.” The exercises fall under five themes: identity, privacy, authorship and ownership, credibility, and participation. For an almost at-a-glance view of the whole resource, see its “road map.”

“Out of Eden Learn”: a Web-based community of guided practice for students created by Harvard School of Education’s Project Zero and paired with journalist Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden walk around the world, a 7-year “radical exercise in slow journalism” designed to slow reporting “down to a human level.” The goal is to help young participants develop an “ethical thinking disposition” or mentality. In her book talk, James breaks that down into three categories: ethical sensitivity (“alertness to moral and ethical dilemmas”); ethical motivation (“an inclination to grapple with those dilemmas”); and ethical agency (efficacy, or the ability and inclination to take ethical action).

At the end of her book, Carrie James reminded us of some parenting advice Jenkins has shared many times: “Young people do not need adults snooping over their shoulders and intruding into their online lives,” she writes. “But they do need adults who will watch their backs and provide them with the insights and resources they need to make meaningful choices.”

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