online safety Digital Ethics

Digital Ethics: Talking to Kids About Online Morals

As my son engages in online gaming environments and even ventures into the coding and design stages of play, I try to remind him of the digital ethics and morals learned when he experienced his first “scam” in face-to-face play–the day a 3rd grader traded a common Pokémon for my son’s rare Pokémon, and it wasn’t until later that my then kindergartner realized he’d been had.

After reading Carrie James’s book, Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, I posed one of the dilemmas she presented to my tween son. The scenario involved an online game in which newcomers connected with more experienced players to learn about tips and norms of play. In this case, players were tipped off that inexperienced players could be taken advantage of by purchasing items that actually held no value.

Consistent with James’s findings, my son initially responded by noting how this trade, while dishonest, could yield “money” within the game quite effectively. I took this opportunity to draw upon an experience he had, which concerned trading Pokémon cards with children in older grades. For the most part, this afforded a chance for peer mentoring and support–the older and more experienced children offered tips and strategy for how to trade most effectively.

One day, not long after my son had spent some of his own allowance on a new pack, he came home with the look of someone who just realized he’d been duped. An older 3rd grader convinced him to trade a rare Zekrom for a Ferroseed. Translation: he’d been hoodwinked out of a high value card.

As my son and I discussed the ethical dilemma posed in James’s study, drawing on the early days of Pokémon and the disappointment that surrounded his own experience of feeling scammed, he began to think differently about the scenario. Through our conversation, my son started to consider the broader impact of his online interactions, and by drawing on his own experience, he was able to tap into a deeper level of ethical sensitivity. Current research refers to this shift as conscientious connectivity.  In our case, this started with Pikachu.

Tips for Supporting Moral Sensitivity in Online Environments:

  1. Recognize that your tweens and teens may have an initial reaction to digital dilemmas that appears individualistic or limited to their own perspective, benefit, or consequence. This is normal and appropriate for their age and level of development; however, with nurturing guidance, youth can grow their ethical sensitivity to include a broader community.
  2. Whenever possible, try to draw parallels or relevant connections between experiences offline and those in online formats. How does the online situation remind you of something your child experienced in face-to-face interactions with others?
  3. Incorporate digital dilemmas into regular conversations. Just as we provide hypothetical scenarios related to relationships, peer pressure, and safety concerns, offering dilemmas specific to digital environments allows youth to practice problem solving skills and strengthen conscientious connectivity.
  4. Share your own learning pains: Whether it’s an email sent to an unintended person or an embarrassing photo posted, sharing your own digital dilemmas allows your children to see how you learned from your mistakes and lived through awkwardness.
  5. Acknowledge evidence of ethical sensitivity: as your children learn more about critical thinking in a digital age, it’s likely they’ll call adults on certain online behaviors. Similar to a toddler who points out the stop sign you just ran, you can extend your appreciation that they are starting to apply ethical and moral reasoning to your own behaviors.

At Hueya, we recognize that talking to teens and tweens about “right and wrong” in their digital lives is complex and can feel impossible at times. That’s why we’ve created family resources just for parents in their quest for safe, kind online sharing. Click below to find these resources and, as always, let us know if we can help!

About the Author: Amy Howell holds a doctorate in Education Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder and focuses on Early Childhood Education.