Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media | Notes

Posted on November 25, 2013


Carrie James with Katie Davis, Andrea Flores, John M. Francis, Lindsay Pettingill, Margaret Rundle, and Howard Gardner. Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media: A Synthesis from the GoodPlay Project. MIT Press, 2009. (127 pages, free in .pdf) (Locations, free on Kindle) See also MIT’s webpage.



Social networking, blogging, vlogging, gaming, instant messaging, downloading music and other content, uploading and sharing their own creative work: these activities made possible by the new digital media are rich with opportunities and risks for young people. This report, part of the GoodPlay Project, undertaken by researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero, investigates the ethical fault lines of such digital pursuits.

The authors argue that five key issues are at stake in the new media: identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility, and participation. Drawing on evidence from informant interviews, emerging scholarship on new media, and theoretical insights from psychology, sociology, political science, and cultural studies, the report explores the ways in which youth may be redefining these concepts as they engage with new digital media. The authors propose a model of “good play” that involves the unique affordances of the new digital media; related technical and new media literacies; cognitive and moral development and values; online and offline peer culture; and ethical supports, including the absence or presence of adult mentors and relevant educational curricula. This proposed model for ethical play sets the stage for the next part of the GoodPlay project, an empirical study that will invite young people to share their stories of engagement with the new digital media.


The goals of the GoodPlay Project are twofold — (1) to investigate the ethical contours of the new digital media and (2) to create interventions to promote ethical thinking and, ideally, conduct. (Kindle Locations 48-49)

We argue that five key issues are at stake in the new media-identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility, and participation. (Kindle Location 52)

We define good play as online conduct that is meaningful and engaging to the participant and is responsible to others in the community and society in which it is carried out. We argue that the new digital media, with all their participatory potentials, are a playground in which five factors contribute to the likelihood of good play-the technologies of the new digital media; related technical and new media literacies; person-centered factors, such as cognitive and moral development, beliefs, and values; peer cultures, both online and offline; and ethical supports, including the presence or absence of adult mentors and educational curricula. (Kindle Locations 55-58)


Somewhat surprisingly though, objective, research-based accounts of the ethical issues raised by the new digital media are scarce.’ This report attempts to fill this gap. (Kindle Locations 90-91)

It thus seems critical to ask whether the new digital media are giving rise to new mental models-new “ethical minds”-with respect to identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, credibility, and participation and whether the new digital media require a reconceptualization of these issues and the ethical potentials they carry. (Kindle Locations 96-98)

The new digital media have ushered in a new and essentially unlimited set of frontiers (Gardner 2007b). Frontiers are open spaces: they often lack comprehensive and well-enforced rules and regulations and thus harbor both tremendous promises and significant perils.

a participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)” (Jenkins et al. 2006, 3). (Kindle Locations 108-113)

The reality is that most online situations are rich with promises and risks, both of which often carry ethical consequences. (Kindle Location 125)

…because commercial interests have an ever-growing presence in digital spaces, the extent to which market forces will have a hand in regulation and the ethical implications of their involvement need to be considered. Now is the time to ask what a regulated World Wide Web would look like and how we can retain the openness and socially positive potentials of the new digital media while restraining unethical conduct. We believe that such a balance cannot be struck without a nuanced understanding of the distinct ethical fault lines in these rapidly evolving frontiers. Yet understanding is but a first step. Ultimately, for the promises of the new digital media to be positively realized, supports for ethical participation-indeed for the creation of “ethical minds” (Gardner 2007a) — must emerge. (Kindle Locations 128-133).

Again, our objective in this report is to provide an overview of what is known about ethical issues that are raised by the new digital media, especially with respect to young people. We are motivated in our project by our concerns about the prevalence of ideologically driven (as opposed to empirically based) accounts of youth’s online activities. (Kindle Locations 136-138)

In writing this report, we have three further goals — (1) to stimulate conversations with informed readers, scholars, and other critical thinkers about digital media; (2) to establish a research agenda to help confirm, reject, or revise the understandings and hypotheses presented here; (3) to provide hints about the kinds of supports needed (that is, the key ingredients for successful outreach efforts) so that young people can reflect on the ethical implications of their online activities and ultimately engage in “good play.” (Kindle Locations 139-142)

The “Good Play” Approach

In this report, our understanding of what constitutes an ethical issue is deliberately broad and includes respect and disrespect, morality and immorality, individual behavior, role fulfillment, and positive (civic engagement) and negative (deception and plagiarism) behaviors. (Kindle Locations 146-147)

Much of our attention in this report is focused on these third-space activities and less so on unambiguous games. In labeling such activities play, we do not suggest that they are inconsequential. Rather, we do so to highlight the nature of the contexts in which they are carried out and the varied purposes that participants can bring to them. (Kindle Locations 152-154)

Among many relevant findings from this research is the discovery that good work and bad work are much easier to define and determine in professions that have explicit missions, goals, and values around which key stakeholders align. (Kindle Locations 155-156)

…respect involves openness to differences, tolerance of others, and civility toward people, whether or not they are personally known. The respectful person gives others the benefit of the doubt. … ethics presupposes the capacity for thinking in abstract terms about the implications of a given course of action for one’s self, group, profession,… (Kindle Locations 173-176)

Ethical Fault Lines in the New Digital Media

Theorists of human development have described identity formation as the major task of adolescence, at least in modern Western societies (Erikson 1968). (Kindle Locations 239-240)

With respect to our purposes here, identity formation is not just an individual project but a deeply social one that hinges on social validation, carries social consequences, and bears ethical promises and risks. | Identity exploration and formation are facilitated by self-expression, self-reflection, and feedback from others. (Kindle Locations 246-247)

Not only are young people limited by the types of identities that they can explore offline, but the spaces and times that are available to them for exploration may be disappearing. Adolescence today involves more pressures-related to schoolwork, extracurricular activities, and college admissions-than it did when Erikson first described the adolescent moratorium or when Hall (1904) first wrote about adolescence a century ago. According to Turkle (1999), the moratorium is being cut short by the high-stakes pressures that today’s youth face. Adolescents have decreasing amounts of time and space in which explore their identities.

| At the same time, the new media are providing adolescents with new spaces for identity exploration. Indeed, Turkle (1999) has described the Internet as a fertile space for youth to undertake Erikson’s psychosocial moratorium. Freed from the physical, social, and economic constraints of real life, she argues, individuals can experiment with multiple identities in an environment that is perceived to be “low-stakes.” Turkle’s pioneering book (1995) described how individuals engage in identity play on the Internet by adopting different names, writing styles, and personas for their digital “selves.” More than a decade later, the number and types of digital spaces have expanded, making it possible for many more forms of self-expression and spaces for self-reflection to emerge. Young people can thus elicit feedback on their identity experiments from broader, more diverse audiences than they can offline. …youth’s online self-expressions tend to reflect aspects of their offline selves… (Kindle Locations 254-263)

Stern (2007) suggests that the deliberate nature of online self-representations facilitates identity formation by forcing individuals to articulate who they are now, who they want to become, and what beliefs and values guide them in their personal growth. (Kindle Locations 281-282)

Self-reflection is an important personal skill that facilitates broader social and ethical skills and can help engender credibility and socially responsible participation… (Kindle Locations 287-288)

Finally, online spaces provide youth with unique and important opportunities to gain validating feedback from others. Human development occurs in a social context and is aided by feedback that helps individuals reconcile their self-conceptions with society’s appraisals of them. (Kindle Locations 288-289)

Although identity play through the new digital media can be beneficial, the forms of self-expression, self-reflection, and feedback that are conducted online may undermine, rather than enhance, an individual’s identity formation. Young people who fail to develop a coherent, autonomous sense of self are evading an important obligation to themselves. They may struggle in myriad ways and be incapable of assuming important social roles and fulfilling responsibilities. (Kindle Locations 296-298)

Turkle notes that “without any principle of coherence, the self spins in all directions. Multiplicity is not viable if it means shifting among personalities that cannot communicate.” (Kindle Locations 316-317)

According to Erikson (1968), the ultimate goal of an adolescent’s identity explorations is a coherent, unitary sense of self, not a series of fragmented identities. (Kindle Locations 319-320)

Another possible peril of online identity play lies in its performative quality. The self-reflection that digital spaces afford can be undermined when presenting to an audience becomes more valued and urgent than turning inward to engage in self-examination. (Kindle Locations 322-323)

It seems reasonable to question the degree to which one can engage in deep and genuine self-reflection while spending a great deal of energy performing a specific self to others. The performance also risks becoming more important than the truth. (Kindle Locations 328-329)

When young people are encouraged to maintain continuous connections with others and to express and reflect in a fully or semipublic space, the benefits of autonomous self-reflection-indeed, of “being alone”-come to be undervalued. Young people may be developing an unhealthy reliance on feedback from others as a basis for self-development and limiting their capacity for autonomous decision making (Moser 2007; Zaslow 2007). (Kindle Locations 335-337)

Offline, privacy is generally understood to mean the retention or concealment of personal information, and in the United States, it is framed as an entitlement. (Kindle Locations 359-360)

Yet distinct properties of the Internet bear on privacy in new ways. boyd (2007a) identifies four such properties, including persistence (what you post persists indefinitely), searchability (you can search for anyone and find their digital “body”), replicability (you can copy and paste information from one context to another), and invisible audiences (you can never be sure who your audience is). (Kindle Locations 365-367)

The sharing that is happening in these spaces does not necessarily suggest that youth do not value their own privacy or respect others’ privacy, but it does suggest that they understand privacy differently than earlier generations did. To many young participants, privacy is not about hiding personal information but rather involves carefully managing its disclosure-what is shared, how it is presented, and who can access it (Woo 2006). Online, young people are arguably creating a culture of disclosure, meaning distinct beliefs, norms, and practices that are related to their online profiles and lives. This culture legitimates and guides young people’s disclosure of personal information for their intended audiences of peers. (Kindle Locations 369-372)

Pew reports that Internet users are becoming more aware of their “digital footprints” but that surprisingly few of them use strategies to limit access to their information (Madden et al. 2007). This laissez-faire approach to disclosure can be interpreted in a number of ways, ranging from carelessness to a conscious (although fragile) set of assumptions and norms about an audience. (Kindle Locations 385-387

The final privacy-related peril relates to deception. … Nevertheless, the line between benign and malicious deception can be difficult for young people to discern in mediated spaces where outcomes are not immediately clear. (Kindle Locations 429-431)

Decades ago, Bok (1979) argued that profound societal harms-such as the decline of pervasive trust-are associated with habits of lying. The great potentials of the Internet will not be realized if basic trust cannot be forged among participants. (Kindle Locations 434-435)

Privacy strategies such as code switching and deception perpetuate the problem of unknowable social and geographic distance between online participants. What results, according to Silverstone (2007, 172), is a “polarization. . . . The unfamiliar is either pushed to a point beyond strangeness, beyond humanity; or it is drawn so close as to become indistinguishable from ourselves.” (Kindle Locations 436-438)

Offline authorship and ownership are tied to the legal concept of property (intellectual or tangible), which gives the ownership and exclusive intellectual property rights for a work to an individual or organization. In short, credit and profit are given to creators or owners. (Kindle Locations 460-461)

The new digital media shift the traditional separation between-and roles and responsibilities of-audience and author, forging opportunities for cocreation that may be especially advantageous to youth. (Kindle Locations 481-482)

The open-source movement promotes the idea that sharing information may lead to higher-quality creations, greater knowledge, and more efficient knowledge-building processes. In their roles as students and learners, wired young people are poised to be the main beneficiaries of this exciting democratization of knowledge. (Kindle Locations 494-495)

The downloading and appropriation of young consumers and cocreators might represent an ethical (even if not legal) stance, but one peril for users is that a sense of entitlement becomes a habit of mind that is overextended to other contexts. (Kindle Locations 538-540)

In an age of file sharing and knowledge communities, ownership and authorship have become muddy issues. Young people and all other new media users are caught between old and new modes of authorship and ownership. Confusion about what constitutes ethical appropriation and what contesting notions of authorship are held by different stakeholders may be on the rise. The worst-case scenario is that youth will embrace an overreaching sense of entitlement with respect to knowledge and other creations in digital circulation. In their future roles as workers, they may avoid teamwork for fear of not receiving due credit or perhaps be apt to usurp their colleagues’ products as their own. Conversely, the same youth could become tomorrow’s innovators, pooling their skills, talents, and resources for the greater good. Crucial to these promising outcomes is fostering productive dialogue among teachers and students about authorship, ownership, and fair use in a digital age. (Kindle Locations 554-559)

We consider two faces of credibility here-the ways in which young people establish their own credibility and young people’s capacities for assessing the credibility of others. Although the ability to evaluate others’ credibility is important and can have ethical implications, our principal concerns here are the judgments and actions of young people that affect their own credibility. How do young people decide to present themselves-their credentials, skills, and motivations-to various others in various contexts? For our purposes here, credibility is about being accurate and authentic when representing one’s competence and motivations. (Kindle Locations 573-576)

Signaling credibility is at once easier and more difficult online when traditional means for conveying competence and motivations are unavailable. (Kindle Locations 592-593)

In short, fewer restrictions exist online about what counts as knowledge and who qualifies as an expert. | The openness of the new media permits young people to explore different domains and outlets for their skills without the costs and time that are usually associated with training and education. (Kindle Locations 601-603)

With few accountability structures in place online, everyone is responsible for his or her self-representation. In this, the support and guidance of adult mentors could be beneficial to young people. (Kindle Locations 628-630)

A further peril that is associated with online credibility is that young people may begin to undervalue credentials and miss opportunities to gain valuable but less readily acquirable skills. (Kindle Locations 632-633)

Participation is the culminating ethical issue in the new digital media, and it arguably subsumes the issues of identity, privacy, ownership and authorship, and credibility. Participation centers on the roles and responsibilities that an individual has in community, society, and the world. (Kindle Locations 653-655)

In sum, opportunities for youth to assume empowering social roles online can endow them with a sense of responsibility to others, to their communities, and to society. (Kindle Locations 696-697)

Young people may limit their participation to groups that subscribe to and reinforce a myopic or prejudicial worldview. Participation in the new media can thus lead to a resurgence of hate mongering, neo-Nazi groups, or terrorist organizations as surely as it can stimulate positive deliberative discourse and the exposure of injustices large and small. (Kindle Locations 720-722)

Young people may limit their participation to groups that subscribe to and reinforce a myopic or prejudicial worldview. Participation in the new media can thus lead to a resurgence of hate mongering, neo-Nazi groups, or terrorist organizations as surely as it can stimulate positive deliberative discourse and the exposure of injustices large and small. (Kindle Locations 720-722)

If young people see themselves as efficacious only when they’re online, then they may avoid an offline political system that they already see as problematic, uninviting, and difficult to navigate. (Kindle Locations 726f.)

Conclusion: Toward Good Play

Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not. Our experiences there are serious play. We belittle them at our risk. We must understand the dynamics of virtual experience both to foresee who might be in danger and to put these experiences to best use. Without a deep understanding of the many selves that we express in the virtual, we cannot use our experiences to enrich the real. If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation. (Turkle 1995, 268) (Kindle Locations 746f.)

We define good play as meaningful and socially responsible participation online. (Kindle Locations 763f.)

Ideally, our good play model provides a balance of technologies, opportunities, and support that set the stage for young people to become productive, innovative, and ethical participants in the new digital media. At present, however, the burden of good play largely falls on individual youth. (Kindle Locations 819f.)

We seek to understand and encourage good play not to create more obedient, respectful youth but to develop ethical reflection and conduct as a key foundation for youth empowerment. The new digital media create tremendous opportunities for young people — to nurture important skills, to connect with others around the world, to engage in meaningful play, to nurture skills for future careers, to engage in civic pursuits, and to contribute to a greater good. Our hope is that our work helps to cultivate these promises while minimizing the risks that lie in the frontiers of digital media. (Kindle Locations 844f.)