I have been teaching Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Australian high schools for over 20 years. I often have conversations with students who encounter challenges in the digital world. Their own attitudes, values and anti-social behaviours, and that of others, could be detrimental to their social engagement with others, their wellbeing and their moral development. I have also seen many wonderful examples of human morality and ethics held by young people.

The challenge for young people, however, is two-sided. They need to understand how their values and behaviours affect their activities and others not only in the digital world, but also how the digital world affects the formation of their values and behaviours.

ICT can influence them to do wrong things and feel that we can get away with it, without a need to engage their own sense of right and wrong. Young people refer to this as the ‘distance’ between others. ICT could allow us feel exempt from having and exerting moral responsibility.

Young People are in the Driver’s Seat
Schools attempt to address the misuse and risks associated with the use of ICTs by ‘controlling’ and ‘restricting’ students’ ICT usage. However, as their is open access to personal Wi-Fis this could only be achieved only in a limited way.

As young people manage their own uses of ICT, individuals play the most significant role in determining their practices, and therefore, this is where the focus should be. This requires fostering moral values that compel self-reflection, critical evaluations of the use of ICT, as well as self-regulation and having a moral agency.

Tensions between various approaches to cope with the unethical uses of ICT in schools and in society are difficult to resolve unless schools could define the important values and abilities that students need to have whilst using ICT. These then need to be fostered into their use and their lives.

Digital Natives – Can students do this on their own?

Since young people generally know more about new media environments than most adults do, we must be cautious about constructing teens as natural experts of technology. This assumes that young people naturally know what to do and are able to acquire the abilities to participate ethically and effectively in the digital world on their own.

Firstly, this assumes that young people actively reflect on their experiences and can thus articulate what they learn from their participation in the digital world. Secondly, it assumes that they can develop an ethical framework on their own, to help guide their participation.

Cyber-Safety programs are the main and only proactive intervention strategies directed towards youth with respect to use of ICT. However, these programs do not really address the underlying issue of the values which drives the problems in the first place.

Digital Moral Framework

“If we’re trying to tell someone to have good values, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got good values… If you’ve got values, stick to them.” – Betty (a 14-year-old student).

A holistic digital moral framework is needed, whichcan support moral reasoning, emotions and behaviours – the three aspects of human morality. Integrity in the digital world is having moral expectation of oneself and living up to one’s moral values, based on the values of authenticity, accountability, honesty and trustworthiness.

This chart represents the ranking of importance students placed on each of the moral issues they encountered in the digital world.

“I am the same on the internet as I am in real life” “I don’t try to look better.” – A student reported.

One definition of authenticity, whilst using ICT, is being who we truly are and being consistent in one’s self-presentation. Students often noted that authenticity was important for themselves and their peers, indicating the importance of being consistent in how they portrayed themselves online.

“It was not fair to blame others without putting yourself in other people’s shoes.” – Another student reported.

The heart is being empathetic towards others and following one’s conscience with respect to one’s actions. While using ICT, some students appeared to understand their own emotional reactions and discern the morally relevant factors of a situation, such as not blaming others without knowing their circumstances. Empathy is associated with having a more lenient moral judgments of others.

“If you are on technology you can go out of your limits (in the level of inappropriate social media postings) and think that was too far, but you can’t control it because of someone else doing it to you as well.” – Betty reported.

Having sound character whilst using ICT, is managing ourselves based on the values of self-control and responsibility, and behaving morally towards others which is based on the values of altruism, justice and having respect.

The Digital Moral Framework suggests that moral reasoning, emotions and behaviours play an important role in the moral use of ICT by young people. The two key abilities that stand out are; self-reflection of one’s values and behaviours and critical analysis of the values and practices that mediate the use of ICT.

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