Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Conversations About Digital Ethics (Part One)

Earlier this year, Common Sense Media, Global Kids, and the Good Play Project, three highly regarded groups, each working in different ways to promote the new media literacies, issued a report, Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Conversations About the Ethics of Digital Life, which summarized their collaborative efforts to get adults and youth discussing some core issues of online ethics. All three groups were active presences during the recent Diversifying Participation conference hosted last week by the MacArthur Foundation. I very much wanted to share the thinking behind the report with my readers and am happy today to offer you some insights from the three groups involved. I have long believed in the importance of opening chains of communication across the generations around the uncertainities we face in the digital era. I modeled what such a conversation might look like between parent and child in an essay I wrote with my son on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, and I published a study guide for adults and youth to conduct conversations in the wake of Columbine which appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Telemedium (now the Journal of Media Literacy).

In some ways, such conversations may be easiest to frame between adults and youth who are not directly related, since it gets us out of the raw emotions which often surround adolescence within the family space, but it is also very important for parents to have frank exchanges with their children about their values, their concerns, and their experiences with digital media. I've sometimes said in the past that young people do not need adults "snooping over their shoulders," they need them "watching their backs." By this, I mean that we often reduce such issues to questions of "monitoring' youth activity (with or without their knowledge) and we really should be creating channels of communication. The news this week that a Pennsylvania school had installed spyware on their school-issued laptops and were watching what teens did outside of school is a demonstration of what happens when adults rely on surveillance rather than conversation to shape youth behavior. None of us know for sure the best course of action in confronting some of the new situations which emerge in this still evolving space. Young people deserve our best wisdom as adults, but they also deserve our respect and trust, as they try to develop their own ways in life.

I am really excited to see what these three groups have been able to accomplish using online forums as a tool for getting adults and youth to reflect more deeply about their relations to the digital realm.

Can you describe each of the three groups and some of your previous work in this area? Why did you decide to develop a collaborative project together and what did you each bring to the collaboration?

GLOBAL KIDS: Sure. For us at Global Kids, this project was in many ways a continuation of work we've been doing for almost ten years to promote youth voices about important social and global issues. We began youth projects that used online dialogues to do this as early as 2001, when we ran E.A. 911, short for "Everything After September 11th", an online dialogue that took place six months after 9/11 where youth from around the world came together to talk about the impact of the attacks. We continued for years running youth dialogues on current events with a project called Newz Crew, a collaboration with PBS's News Hour.

The Focus Dialogues, which formed the basis for the Meeting of Minds report, were born out of the desire to bring youth voice to the emerging conversation about how new media are changing kids' lives. We held the first round of the dialogues, which were teen only, back in 2007, and we heard pretty forcefully from the participating teens that adults were checked out when it came to providing guidance in this area, which prompted us to take a cross-generational approach for the next round of dialogues. We were already familiar with GoodPlay's work on ethics online as well as Common Sense Media's work with parents, and it just seemed natural to reach out to them as collaborators.

GOODPLAY: For our part, we welcomed the opportunity to incorporate some of our research methods into this exciting initiative. Since 2006, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, the GoodPlay team has been studying young people's understanding of the ethical dimensions of their online activities. In the first phase of our study, we conducted in-depth interviews with over 60 young people, ages 15-25, who were living in the Greater Boston area. In these interviews, we posed hypothetical ethical dilemmas involving digital media and asked participants how they would respond if confronted with a similar situation.

For the Focus Dialogues, we decided to adapt some of these hypothetical dilemmas and present them as points of discussion. We also identified several compelling quotes from our interviews in which youth participants expressed various opinions about the boundaries of acceptable behavior in online contexts. In total, we created 2-3 prompts for each of the five issues that we believe to be ethically charged in the new digital media:

  • identity (When does identity play cross over into deception?),
  • privacy (What are the boundaries of sharing information about oneself and others online?),
  • ownership/authorship (How has the act of creation been altered by digital media and with what effects on claims to ownership and authorship?),
  • credibility (How do people signal their trustworthiness online and judge the trustworthiness of others?),
  • participation (In a context of rapidly forming and disintegrating communities, how are norms of behavior established, maintained, and respected online?).

Each day, dialogue participants were presented with a prompt relating to one of these five ethical issues and asked to respond in a discussion thread. This approach generated some rich conversations between teens and adults.

COMMON SENSE MEDIA : As a non-profit, we were founded on the principle that dialogue among parents, teachers, and students is the way forward! One way we encourage discussion across the generations is by asking all parties to use our online ratings and reviews of movies, books, websites, and music, and to write reviews of their own. We have also conducted quantitative research about the attitudes towards media of adults and children, including a recent national poll examining hi-tech cheating with more than 2000 teens and parents. The dialogues were a creative, new way to conduct research and foster dialogue and we welcomed the chance to collaborate with Global Kids and GoodPlay on the project.

We knew the dialogues would inform our parent resources, policy work, and educational programs. We are in fact in the midst of creating a Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum for 5th-8th grade students that focuses on empowering kids to harness the power of digital technology responsibly. The curriculum, grounded in the research of the GoodPlay Project, is meant to be fun and engaging, and challenges kids to think critically about the perils and possibilities of life online. These dialogues and other focus groups and pilot research that we are conducting across the country all serve to inform this curriculum, which takes a whole community approach to engaging parents, teachers, and students in learning. As with GoodPlay, our work on digital citizenship is also supported in large part by the MacArthur Foundation.

Your key finding in the press release you've issued is that youth often lack access to valuable adult guidance in their online lives. Many have assumed that youth who are "digital natives" who do not necessarily need or appreciate adult interference. How do you respond to that argument?

GLOBAL KIDS: I think that there are a lot of ways that the digital natives argument has become more complicated and has shifted as the years have gone on. Just as people have realized that not all youth are equal in terms of technological access or the kinds of online participation they're exposed to, there's also been a growing awareness that there are many different aspects to what it means to be digitally fluent. For us, this doesn't just mean having digital skills, but also engaging online as a digital citizen. A teen might be a technological whiz and seem completely at home within complex games, but if he or she is regularly cheating new players out of virtual cash while playing those games, that's problematic. Digital skills and fluency can't exist in a vacuum, there has to be a values component to this conversation.

COMMON SENSE MEDIA: In that respect, even adults who aren't very technologically savvy can add a lot to their kids' understanding of digital life. After all, kids may possess great technology know-how, but parents and teachers have a lot of wisdom and experience grappling with "life" issues like privacy and community. At the same time, there are some distinctly new ethical challenges (that the GoodPlay Project outlines so well in its white paper) that adults should understand, many of which we address in the report. Given that adults and teens bring different prior knowledge and life experience to the online space, we believe that the conversation and subsequent learning around these issues is a two-way street. Right now the online space is seen very much as a peer dominated space in which teens talk and interact mostly with one another. In most cases, it is even looked down upon for adults to have contact with teens online. We believe that the more dialogue and mentoring that adults and teens can have online - as long as it is monitored and safe - the better.

Describe for us the process of getting adults and young people engaged in an honest exchange about ethics and digital culture. Did you learn things here that would be helpful for other groups seeking to replicate this process at a local level?

COMMON SENSE MEDIA AND GLOBAL KIDS: In terms of activity in the dialogues, we were surprised that teens participated more readily than adults, on average, especially since we saw two adults sign up for every teen that did. We chalked up the participation differences to the fact that we had a lot of youth in the dialogues that were pretty involved in online communities and were used to sharing their views online from both a social as well as technological perspective. Adults overall were a little more hesitant and some had trouble navigating the technology, and we also got the sense that many were parents that had less experience with forum based discussions and didn't realize that they actually had to build in time to participate fully.

There was a learning curve involved for some adults in terms of using an online environment, and that should certainly be taken into account for people looking to start similar exchanges in their communities. At the same time, the kind of youth engagement we saw was incredible, and we think there's something to be said for that. So often it's hard for adults to engage in dialogue about touchy issues with kids, but we found that online we saw very active sharing from the youth side.

Importantly, despite some of the differences that we observed between the two groups, it seemed that both generally saw the gray ethical areas for what they were. Adults overall did not seem too didactic or disrespectful of teens' opinions and teens generally seemed to appreciate adults' point of view. The interaction in many ways was characterized more by a kind of mutual exchange reminiscent of peers than the sort of stereotypical "parent yells at kid/kid storms off to their room" arguments that can come up when discussing difficult topics. We think that part of why this happened was that the whole interaction was framed from the beginning as a dialogue between groups, which is rare for adult/youth interactions. There's probably some lesson there for those that want to run online dialogues themselves. Both sides need to be respected and valued from the outset for this kind of exchange to work.

You report that teens are more likely to engage in moral thinking than ethical thinking. Can you explain the distinction you are drawing and what your findings were?

GOODPLAY: The distinction we make between moral and ethical thinking has its roots in the different roles and relationships that individuals experience. Moral thinking arises in the context of interpersonal relationships, such as the relationship between close friends or between a parent and child. It is perhaps most simply conceived of as "Golden Rule thinking" - treat others how you would want them to treat you. In contrast, ethical thinking requires a more abstract, disinterested frame of mind. Specific forms of ethical thinking include reflection on roles and responsibilities in online spaces; perspective taking - or the ability to take the standpoints of multiple stakeholders in an online context; and consideration of community-level benefits or harms associated with different courses of action online.

In the Focus dialogues, we found relatively few instances of either moral or ethical thinking among teens, although there were some notable exceptions. For the most part, teen participants demonstrated what we call consequence-based thinking, since they tended to focus on how each scenario would affect them personally. For instance, when participants were considering the pros and cons of illegal music downloading, they were more likely to discuss such personally relevant factors as expense, convenience, and the risk of getting caught. Less frequent were references to the potential effects on other interested parties, such as artists and music companies.

Katie Davis is a Project Specialist on several research projects led by Dr. Howard Gardner at Project Zero, including the GoodPlay Project, the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project, and the Trust and Trustworthiness Project. She is also an advanced doctoral student in Human Development and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In recent work, she conducted a study investigating how girls in late adolescence and emerging adulthood use blogging as a way to express and explore their identities. For the Focus Dialogues, Katie and Carrie James, a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, developed the framework that informed the dialogues, developed dialogue prompts, and synthesized findings.

Shira Lee Katz is the Digital Media Project Manager at Common Sense Media, where she manages the research and creation of a forthcoming Digital Citizenship curriculum for 5th-8th grade students. She is also a key point person for the Digital Media & Learning grantee network funded by The MacArthur Foundation. Shira holds a doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard Graduate School of Education. For the Focus Dialogues, Shira and Linda Burch, Common Sense Media's Chief Education and Strategy Officer, co-conceptualized the project, developed dialogue prompts, recruited adult participants, and produced the final report.

Rafi Santo is a Senior Program Associate in the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids, Inc. Rafi specializes in the design and implementation of educational technology projects and has done work as varied as online youth dialogues, youth advisories focused around digital media, social media civic engagement programs and youth leadership development and peer education in virtual worlds. He has collaborated on projects with many organizations and with MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning grantees to strengthen their initiatives through youth voices and perspectives. Rafi has over 10 years of experience in youth development and education. For the Focus Dialogues, Rafi and Barry Joseph, Director of Global Kids' Online Leadership Program, conceptualized the project, developed dialogue prompts, recruited teen participants, housed and monitored the dialogues on their website, a wrote the final report.

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