Building Ethical Thinking Skills – Thoughts on Disconnected: Youth, New Media & the Ethics Gap

In an always connected world how can we help our students and our children become better, more thoughtful problems solvers when they encounter challenging dilemmas? What can adults do to encourage young people to grow into citizens who understand how to examine issues and problems from a range of perspectives — theirs, of course, but also the possible ramifications of theirs in the context of a community where they live, with others, or even the world. Each parent and every teacher ask these reflective questions again and again as they observe young people navigating through their online lives.

The questions change a bit in the midst of a digital problem or public embarrassment, caused by misuse or misunderstandings on the Internet. In those situations it’s not uncommon to hear people, and young people especially, exclaim, “Why did I do that?” or “What was I thinking?”  Or even more often an adult asks a child, “What were you thinking?” These questions come up when there is little to reflect

In her book, Disconnected: Youth New Media and the Ethics Gap, Carrie James (read author’s bio) suggests some answers to these questions as she shares the results of her qualitative research with young people ages 10 – 25 and also with parents of digital natives. James examines the decisions that young people make and how they respond to digital life ethical problems. In her research the author documents how participants think about and solve privacy, participation, speech, and intellectual property dilemmas, finding that the most of the young people tended to examine issues and respond to problems with a self-focused perspective or a friend-focused moral perspective. Only rarely did the young subjects in her interviews engage in more complex ethical thinking by considering perspectives from the viewpoint of a larger community, a group, or even society as a whole.   

Used with the permission of the author. Click to listen to a webinar.

Used with the permission of the author. Click to listen to a webinar.

Based on her interviews James believes that, to grow into to better decision makers, young people need support from the adults in their lives. Parents and educators can make a significant difference in the lives of children, pre-adolescents, and teens by giving them opportunities to practice thinking ethically so they gain more insight into the ways that their digital world decisions can affect a broader community.

The author’s interview results also led her to conclude that adults spend a tremendous amount of time teaching about digital issues from a “watch out and protect yourself” point of view, encouraging each child to think about how to protect personal privacy and how to be sure to make decisions that will enhance rather than hurt their personal digital profiles. More simply said, we tend to use fear and scare tactics to keep children, pre-adolescents, and teens from stepping too far out of line and the responses to interview questions reflected this idea. James also concluded that we adults may not spend nearly enough time guiding children through the process of examining dilemmas, considering various solutions, thinking about how each solution affects others near and far. In essence, we must help young people gaze into ethical prisms that provide the broader perspectives of other people.

The lack of focused support from adults is what James refers to as a mentorship gap — describing how we adults do not make sufficient effort to encourage kids to learn how to manage and navigate their connected lives and to think ethically about the problems they encounter. Taking responsibility for mentoring young people and for helping them visualize the big picture is one way that adults can help digital kids recognize and avoid situations where mistakes are made and wishes to undo what can’t be easily undone are made.

An interesting idea in the book is the concept of digital life disconnects and blind spots. We’ve all observed these in the lives of children who are insensitive about the implications of their actions while texting, emailing, using social media, borrowing the digitized intellectual property of others, or merely chatting. Disconnects and blind spots are the primary reason that so many connected world problems occur in the lives of 21st Century kids, and those keep young people from considering the effect of their actions on the wider community. Mentoring can make a difference.

At the end of the book James includes a methodological appendix describing the interviews undertaken and the characteristics of study participants, and copious notes document each chapter, connecting the research of others with her own. These notes provide many other useful resources for adults who are tasked with helping young people grow up in the 21st Century digital world.

So what is qualitative research? According to Qualitative Inquiry: A Dictionary of Terms, by Thomas A. Schwandt (Sage Publications), this type of research uses non-numeric information to explore and examine a problem, and statistics are not used. Examples of this type of research might include case studies, narrative studies, and ethnography. Qualitative researchers make observations and look for patterns but not generalizations, and this is the type of research that Carrie James conducted for her book. (To learn more about research in general, you might also want to read my post Digital World Research: What It Tells Us About Causation vs. Association.)

We adults have much work ahead of us if we are to help young people consider their roles and actions in digital life, mentoring them to think beyond themselves and the lives they lead. Carrie James’ book offers us carefully developed guidance and is well worth reading even though it is more academic, dense, and nuanced reading than many of the books we read about kids’ digital lives. The book may well make a difference by helping us recalibrate the ways we guide and mentor young digital natives.

N.B. My thanks to educational technology summer reading colleagues in the the Independent School Educators Network (ISED), a part of the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE), who chose Disconnected: Youth New Media, and the Ethics Gap as our 2015 selection. Each year we invite the author of our summer reading to take part in a webinar with our members. Dr. James graciously accepted our invitation and gave a presentation. To listen to our recorded webinar about the book please click on the “ways on thinking” image above.

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