Monday, September 20, 2010

Ethically Challenged?

There's been a lot said in the past year about Slacktivism -- that portmanteau of the words "slacker" and "activism" that has become a derogatory term for click-and-give philanthropy. But now, a new MacArthur-funded study unveiled today at Mashable's Social Good Summit 2010 says many young people, when online, simply don't act very morally or ethically and need to be mentored by the social good community to play more generously (and civically) with others.

"While social media offer youth new powers, (young people) need to learn to use those powers more responsibly for good," Carrie James, the research director and principal investigator at Harvard University's Project Zero told summit-goers. "Right now, our findings show that youth tend to consider their own interests above all when they're online and ignore the reality that online, they are participants in large public communities. If youth are to leverage new media for civic participation, they will need to start seeing online life as consequential and meaningful -- and not simply as a joke, for fun or something that helps them pursue only their individual interests."

James shared these new findings from her team's current research:

* Young people tend not to think that they have a responsibility towards others when they are online. James said that one young woman she interviewed told the Project Zero team the following: "I do online what I want to do online. I don't really feel like its anybody's business to tell me what I should or shouldn't do. I don't really feel responsible to people online. I definitely feel like it's more for me and not for anyone else." James said she and her team found this attitude to be "a bit unsettling, at the very least."

* Young people don't care much about what impact their online choices have on others, including on the feelings of others and on social justice and fairness. "One of the most significant properties of new media is that they allow for interactions with groups of people beyond our known circles," James said. "I think the level of moral thinking among the youth we studied is not sufficient for participation in these new spaces. ... (Young people online) seem to ignore the reality that online, they are participants in larger communities."

* Ethical thinking is scarce among online youth. "There is very little capacity (on the part of the youth studied) to think in the abstract" about what their actions -- such as downloading music illegally, for example -- might have on others, such as the musicians who created the music or on the music business that is trying to sell it. "This is the rarest way of thinking that we found about online life in our study," James said. "It's a mindset devoid of ethical considerations."

* There is a prevailing view that online life is just for fun, and cannot be influenced. One young person told James: “Most of the time when people see something online, their main reaction is to laugh because most of the stuff on the Internet you have no sway over at all, so you just laugh and move on." James said this comment reflects two sentiments that her team found to be common among the young people they were studying. "One sentiment is that the Net is just for fun," James said, "and the other is that people feel they can't change things they find to be unsettling online." The irony? "Despite the great powers that social media give young people, these powers can often go unacknowledged."

* There is an absence of moral and ethical supports for online life. "While many youth can name an adult mentor or role model, James says, very few youth in the Project Zero study said there was an adult present in their online decision-making. Among older youth, aged 15-25, she said, adults were "virtually absent." In her study of Tweens, adults were more present but their conversations with Tweens tended to focus mostly on Internet safety rather than on online ethics and citizenship.

To be sure, the picture is not entirely bleak, James says. Groups like, the More Than Me Foundation "do a great job of involving youth in social good projects." But for the most part, James added, the nonprofit sector "represents an untapped opportunity to leverage social media for social good" among young people.

What do you think? Do nonprofits do enough to involve young people in social causes through the use of social media? Should they do more? How much differently might adults act online compared with the youth surveyed by James' team?

[For more on this subject, see "Slacktivism" and "After Slacktivism" in Cause Global from earlier this year.]

Here's the livestream video of James' speech, as delivered earlier today:

mashable on Broadcast Live Free

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illlustration by Doodlemachine for

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Anonymous Ryan O'Connell said...

"We found a scarcity in the capacity of youth we surveyed to think the abstract on the impact of their online choices beyond the self and for the community, the nation and the world," This could easily be true without the word "online". People young and old often have a difficulty abstracting the impacts of their decisions beyond the self. Even our ability to determine the impact on ourselves is questionable on the long term. For those who don't believe me, see corporate fraud scandals and current global financial crisis. Professional money investors had a hard time seeing how their decisions would impact people. Home owners had a hard time seeing how an untenable mortgage might affect them.

To pretend that this is a problem unique to online youth is absurd.

If you guaranteed to kids that they could steal from record stores and never get caught, they would easily steal real physical albums too. That's why Best Buy has private security. We don't abstain from theft because of the overarching implications on our community. We avoid theft because those mean looking security dudes will stop us and police will come to arrest us.

And that goes all the way up the chain to CEOs with golden parachutes. Perfectly legal but with devastating impacts on our culture. Well, unless there are direct short term consequences, those golden parachutes will continue to deploy.

Totally absurd to relate this to an online youth issue.

September 21, 2010 at 8:18 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Ryan - Thanks for your comments. Carrie's remarks were seen as being controversial by audience members, as well. I'll try grabbing the entire presentation from the livestream and add it to my post so you can see her presentation, in full. Thanks for reading!

September 21, 2010 at 8:35 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

You don't have to look beyond recent news headlines of online bullying by high school kids to see that teenagers do not believe their online actions have consequences.

October 24, 2010 at 8:49 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

Thanks, Joe, for your comment. There are new studies of the differences and similarities between online/offline behavior. The jury's still out but your point is a good one. Thanks for reading!

October 25, 2010 at 8:25 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Wow we just found out about being called social media role models!

A huge honor for our all under 30 all volunteer staff of our tiny organization! Thanks for much for reposting James' thoughts!

December 14, 2010 at 9:49 AM  

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