Young people, social media and the ethics gap

Young people, social media and the ethics gap

“Adults ruined Facebook. Don’t do the same with Instagram. And don’t you DARE go anywhere near Snapchat!”

This was the anguished cry of my teenager during a treasured moment of increasingly elusive mother/daughter conversation. Her plea reflects a wider shift in online teenager behaviour away from more public social networks towards more private ones such as Snapchat. As Facebook becomes more domesticated amongst adults, it appears that teenagers are heading to their own more private and separate spaces. The very idea that I might set up a Snapchat account was enough to fill my teenager with abject horror.

So back to our conversation. I was secretly keen to check out ideas considered in Disconnected – Youth, New Media and the Ethics Gap (Carrie James, 2014) which I have just finished reading. The author considers how young people address ethical issues and moral dilemmas relating to privacy, property and participation online. Based on numerous interviews with young people aged 10 to 25 she found positive examples of highly ethical behaviour that evinced a ‘play nice’ mindset and which respected the privacy of others. However, she also found thoughtless, dismissive and occasionally callous behaviours towards others. Not surprisingly for young people who are still developing their sense of identity, attitudes were often highly individualistic and tended to focus predominantly on consequences of antisocial behaviour for the self rather than for others:

Self-centred stances are not surprising given that egocentrism often characterises the adolescent and emerging adult phases of development. However, the dominance of egocentric thinking is problematic online, given the deeply social nature of the Internet and the qualities and opportunities that can link our seemingly parochial choices to distant people and a wide public(p.105)


James notes the importance of adult role modelling online and that an ethics gap in our mindsets can set a problematic tone for young people still in the process of developing their identity. In discussing the Internet with young people, the author found that adults tend to primarily focus on (a) ‘stranger danger’ and (b) protecting privacy to avoid negative implications for future employment. Despite best intentions, this focus on privacy as an individual concern, when it is in fact a communal and participatory one, can reinforce an individualistic over an ethical approach to the Internet. James argues that adults inadvertently reinforce young people’s blind spots rather than challenge them. Whilst issues of ethics and social responsibility are marginalised, opportunities to discuss the potential of the Web for civic and political participation is similarly diminished.

Adults often fail to appreciate how they can positively influence young people’s mindset and behaviours online. Unfamiliarity with the technology can result in many of us feeling incompetent to help. Simply castigating young people for their use of online social networks only distances adults from having a positive influence on what is a pervasive aspect of young people’s daily lives. So how can adults play a positive role both as mentors and in our own behaviour online?

Firstly, we do need to understand enough about the technical affordances of platforms such as Snapchat to appreciate issues of privacy, property and participation. We then need to have the confidence to apply our deeper insights into ethical and moral dilemmas so we can help young people recognise their social responsibilities to close friends, acquaintances and wider publics online. Parents/carers, family members and educators all have important roles to play. I would also argue that health and care practitioners working with vulnerable young people have a significant role – helping young people explore how online social networks may be tools in building self-esteem and efficacy whilst anticipating and managing effects of thoughtless and mean behaviour online.

So my challenge to myself and other adults in positions of influence with young people – grasp those precious conversations whenever and wherever they emerge and use them as an opportunity to bridge the online ethics gap.

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