Ethical Thinking in the Digital Era

April 16, 2015

Before launching into this blog post about cyber ethics, let me tell you a story:

For the last five years I've been teaching and promoting “Cyber Civics” in California and beyond. This three-year digital media literacy program teaches middle school students how to become “thoughtful, ethical, and competent” digital citizens.

During my third year teaching, when the class I started the program with reached eighth grade, a new girl joined the class. Being new to the school she had missed out on the sixth grade year of weekly “digital citizenship” lessons. During one of these lessons students had worked together creating agreements or “norms” to help guide their online behavior, such as:

“I will not post embarrassing photos of myself or others online.”

So when this new girl posted an embarrassing photo of herself on Instagram (in a bikini striking a provocative pose) a boy in the class told her, “That was really stupid, you should take it down.”

Although the new student’s immediate reaction was to run to the bathroom crying, later that afternoon she did take the picture down. The boy’s crude display of “ethical thinking” about online behavior (guided by social norms he had personally helped create) had potentially saved this young girl from the multiple harms that can result from posting an inappropriate photo online (the least of which is embarrassment when she gets older).

Ethical Thinking Doesn't Happen Overnight

The purpose of this story is two-fold. First, to demonstrate that ethical thinking in a 13-year old boy isn't always pretty. Second, to remind us that ethical thinking takes a long time to develop fully. Experts largely agree that children spend the first 12 years of life putting the cognitive structures in place that enable them to grasp the abstract, metaphoric, and symbolic types of information that lead to ethical thinking. And when a child turns 13, ethical thinking (unfortunately) doesn't turn on with the flip of a switch.

What I've observed in the classroom is that applying ethical thinking skills to the online environment is additionally tricky. Because kids can’t read facial cues or hear the intonation of the spoken word, it’s difficult for them to judge, and learn from, the impact of their online interactions. Plus, a young person’s innate drive to be social far outweighs their ability to consider the consequences of their actions, especially when sharing a photo with friends requires no more than the push of a button. Consequently, kids need each other’s help thinking through the ethical consequences of their online interactions.

They Can’t Do This Alone

Because adults are largely absent from the online world (where kids need us most!), kids must learn how to have each other’s backs. So I've come to think of ethical thinking as a group activity, learned best by peer-to-peer interactions. It is also, arguably, the most important digital skill.

Why Ethical Thinking is the Most Important Digital Skill

Nearly every digital activity—posting, blogging, downloading, uploading, remixing— calls upon ethical thinking: Do I credit the photographer for the photo I just cut and pasted into my paper? Should I post an unflattering picture of my classmate on Instagram? In “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” scholar Henry Jenkins writes: “One important goal of media education should be to encourage young people to become more reflective about the ethical choices they make as participants and communicators and the impact they have on others.”

Nearly every media literacy expert has written about the importance of “cyber ethics,” for example:

“Installing ethical behavior, ought to be our number one concern.” (Prensky, 2010)

“We must “develop an ethical core that can guide us in areas of experience that are in many ways unfamiliar.” (Ohler, 2010)

“… Students must be active, creative, knowledgeable, and ethical participants in our globally networked society.” (U.S. Dept of Education, 2010)

“NDM (new digital media) requires the creation of ethical minds…” (Gardner, 2007)

So How Do We Teach Ethical Thinking?

The way most schools attempt to teach “cyber-ethics” today— i.e., the yearly after-school assembly on “cyberbullying” or “digital citizenship”—doesn’t work because it isn’t nearly enough.

Ethical thinking skills need to be discussed, debated, and practiced. Students have to decide, together, what kind of online communities they want to create and participate in (with our guidance, of course). They need to make mistakes. And, yes, it’s going to be crude and messy, and there might be some tears.

This ethical “norming” of online spaces is a topic writer Anne Collier addresses quite often in her blog. Recently she wrote:

“… those norms are powerful. People want to conform to the customary practices and ideals of their reference group because they will be stigmatized if they fail to do so,” wrote Oxford University professor Peyton Young in a paper on the subject.

Note the term “reference group” – that means the group we compare ourselves to in order to evaluate ourselves. “The way we do things” in this family or peer group or community becomes a member’s standard of reference. Our very identity – how we identify ourselves – is bound up in this. That’s what I mean by powerful. The behavioral norms of the groups we identify with shape us and influence our actions.”

So Let’s Get Busy

I invite you to visit and help yourself to a couple free lessons. Please share them with a teacher. You might start with the lesson referenced above, “Creating a Code of Conduct.”

Let’s “norm” the social norming of online spaces! I look forward to hearing your thoughts or ideas.

Written by

Diana Graber

Diana Graber, author of “Raising Humans in a Digital World: Helping Kids Build a Healthy Relationship with Technology (,” is the founder of Cyberwise ( and Cyber Civics (, two sites dedicated to improving the digital literacy skills of adults and children.