Cyber Civics: Children and Online Ethics

It is estimated that children are online more often than they are in school.  Some studies have found that the average teenager is on the internet for in excess of 10 hours per day.  The interactions that we all have online are a gigantic part of who we are.  Our interactions frame us and we will be judged by them not differently than we are judged by our appearance and profession. 

Safe and civil interaction online is fundamental for children.  They often have little idea about how to navigate the bullying and anonymity that goes with it.  Now, schools have begun experimenting with civics classes focused on childrens’ online interactions.  After looking at this issue, it seems at first glance to be the right course when we are increasingly becoming digital citizens.

The introductory phase in these “cyber civics” classes is generally focused on bullying.  Interestingly, it appears that most studies link cyber-bullying predominantly to making fun of one’s appearance.  While there is always online hatred based upon a child who does not fit into a prototypical gender group or traditional sexual orientation, appearance is by far the most common target for online bullies based upon randomized studies.  There are not simple answers, but the focus on bullying seems a logical place to start for the new curriculums being offered.

Cyber civics is also, in a typical curriculum, secondarily focus on being able to identify “fake news” versus true and factual journalism.  Years ago, it was often said that the first tenet of journalism was objectivity.  The only agenda being that no particular agenda was appropriate is the primary goal.  We have come a long way from that basic principle.  If you read either the conservative or liberal media it is all too clear.  No middle ground seems to exist anymore.  True journalism may not even exist anymore.  That’s a shame.

The core values of our society are generally agreed upon.  We must be kind, respectful, and honest.  Although cultures may vary somewhat as to the way they apply these ideals, it is clear that very few would disagree with this basic premise.  Children are essentially being placed into a broader culture when they have access to the internet.  The odds of a child seeing something inappropriate online are extremely high.  Parents are the only filter for their kids.  The internet, as helpful as it can be used as a teaching tool, is also a double-edged sword.

Although cyber civics as an academic study is a relatively new concept, its focus is not altogether different from social science concepts that are well-established tradition.  Whether we call it cyber civics, social media consciousness, or plain old common decency, the concept remains essentially the same.  Unfortunately, the average person should already be familiar with the importance of decency and honesty but may have eluded that long ago.  When online, some take advantage of avoiding this should-be common ground. 

Anonymity plays a huge role in online interactions, and children are particularly vulnerable.  As such, a new era of digital coach is becoming common.  They now exist in public junior high schools in New Hampshire and Vermont.  Many courses are also offered online as a non-mandatory supplemental option.  Go to Google and search for “cyber civics course” and there are a ton of results.  Whether they are useful is still up for debate.  It seems that much offered is simply a reiteration of common decency.

In sum, it seems that the goal of online decency is a noble one, although somewhat arbitrary when distinguished from simple human interaction and courtesy.  Children are at a great risk of depression and suicide from being harassed, intimidated, and otherwise abused online.  The root cause is that we, as a society, seem to have sheltered and protected online interactions that would run afoul of the laws we have already created regarding defamation and harassment.  Until politicians recognize that anonymous bullies are a significant driver of teen and adolescent suicide and depression, nothing is likely to change. 

It’s time that we identify the real problem…poor public policy.  The legislature could solve much of the problem.  We have to let them, as our elected representatives, know that anonymous online harassment needs to end, once and for all.

Matthew Poole is a Jackson, Mississippi domestic attorney.  He was admitted to the state bar and the federal district courts in 2004.

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