I suppose it is really heartening to know that people are trying to educate our youth on being responsible digital natives. Let’s throw all we got at them, including the law, and see what works. (The Massachusetts law that bans talking and texting for teens and forbids texting for all drivers takes effect this week, 9/30/10).
Today, PBS launched a free online game, Webonauts Internet Academy. The site states: "The Webonauts Internet Academy empowers kids to make responsible and respectful decisions in their online interactions." The first lesson is remembering the game motto: Observe, respect, contribute. (A game hint for the grown-ups attempting to play.) It’s geared to a younger audience. In fact, a tween or teen might not have the patience for it, so other strategies are needed for the cohort that is apt to show the least self-control when online. PBS is taking a responsible step here to get at 'em early. The Girls Scouts of America also has a website, as does MTV (A Thin Line), and there are many other initiatives to encourage young people to think before they text or post, use or abuse social technology.
These efforts come at a time when educators are trying to figure out how to help kids understand the complex issues around privacy and digital citizenship; and tactically, such education is often is thrown into the cyberbully prevention silo -- because most kids can relate to bullying on some visceral level and schools will fund prevention. The larger issue of responsible online citizenship has yet to take hold.
Recent qualitative research from Harvard, the GoodPlay Project, suggests that tweens’ and teens’ perceptions of social media interactions are largely egocentric (no surprise), with little sense of responsibility for self or others. It is what the research team calls a “prevalence of consequence thinking” among teens -- in other words, only attending to how online activity affects them personally. While the researchers found that some teens engage in moral thinking around online engagement, which includes the concepts of the golden rule and fairness, such interpersonal responsibility was not dominant. Moreover, rare among the teens interviewed, was ethical or higher order thinking, in which one can envision a role in the larger digital community and holding a greater purpose than the self. These observations were derived from interviews with adolescents. (See Mashable’s video on researcher Carrie James’ talk at the recent Social Good Summit.)
Without seeing the research report, and before making judgments about youth, it seems that one must take into account adolescent developmental and cognitive abilities, too. Some kids will be able to think abstractly, problem solve, and act ethically, but others aren’t yet able to grasp these concepts. At this age, neural networks are sprawling out in all sorts of directions, and the pruning and fine tuning of certain cognitive abilities that allow for mature thinking just hasn’t happened yet. Certainly, a 17-year old constructs his world differently than a 12-year old.
Consider how online interactions are often immediate, social, sensation-seeking activities, pumping the reward system in the teen brain. Consider also that teens often stop thinking rationally when in a crowd, online or offline. Common sense goes out the window in pack mentality. This is not to let them off the hook, just to suggest that it’s more complex than a lack of ethical thinking.
This is a generation of kids who are raised to take social action, too. They love causes and carwashes; they vote on the best public service or good deeds; and are more apt to purchase material goods and services by companies that embrace a social mission or funnel part of the purchase price toward a donation.
They just can’t connect all the dots yet.So I’m back to throwing everything we’ve got to educate youth at all stages of development, repeatedly, and to their maturational and cognitive phases. It seems to me you have to educate, educate, educate -- across the lifespan. This includes the grown-ups. If we want our youth to grow up as model citizens, we need to model that behavior for them. Some parents I know can’t detach from their blackberries or laptops (not even at their kids sporting events on a Saturday). To wit, my tween recently said to me: "Mom, is your job to write emails all day?" Then there are those “friends” from high school past who share unusual tidbits of information (think FB) -- and to what end? Adults often seem to be the most awkward of learners when it comes to online activity. Maybe it is as simple as reflecting on a simple message or maybe it’s putting some new skills into action.
Observe, respect, contribute.