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As digital communication continues to evolve as a way of life, it is nearly impossible to avoid the digital era from our homes, schools and workplaces.

As such, individuals in society need to realize the increasing significance of digital ethics and the role it plays in our daily lives.  People of all ages will be exposed to modern day technology at some point.

Children’s ethical systems are forged in the home with personal ethics developed from the family’s moral beliefs.  During childhood, moral knowledge is inherited into a framework by our culture, religious beliefs, economic status, social life, gender and those who we are surrounded by most often.

At the age when children begin school, they are placed with others with different moral beliefs and different family backgrounds.  These children continue to face an ever-challenging question of their own beliefs throughout their childhood years.

Children who are raised in families who have no moral or ethical knowledge run the risk of not practicing good ethical behavior. Some of these children will not make ethical decisions during their use of digital media nor will they realize they are doing right or wrong.

With the digital era becoming a prominent fixture in our daily lives, it is pertinent that children of today’s age have knowledge of digital ethics.  If children are not learning digital ethics at home, we, as a society, can’t expect them to know right from wrong in this regard.

For a student who uses media appropriately and respects the privacy and property of themselves and all others, whether they know the party on the other end or not, is practicing good digital ethical behavior.  They prove to do so by their actions.

However, a student who does not practice digital ethics at the beginning of a school year  may not have been surrounded by good moral behavior, or it could be the lack of an ethical system in the home.

“Ideally, parents should be the ones who model best behaviors for their children,” said Michael Cavanagh, Assistant professor who teaches journalism at University of Illinois at Springfield.

“Unfortunately, if parents are not savvy with digital media, it is hard for children, who think they know more, to listen to parents who have never downloaded a CD from Bit Torrent,” Cavanagh said.

As in days past, we face the challenge of trademark and copyright infringement, especially when it comes to the Internet and Web.  According to the copyright law of the United States, any original literary, musical, dramatic, artistic, architectural and audiovisual work that is fixed in some tangible medium or expression is protected and belongs to the author.

Many people are naïve to trademark and copyright laws, such as the case with Napster where people, especially college students, were downloading music for free.

“Most of my students admit to helping themselves to ‘free’ music downloads,” Cavanagh said.

Some people believe, because words, images, video, etc. are on the Internet or Web for everyone to see, that anyone is entitled to it and that is not true.  Copyright laws give authors exclusive rights to their works.

“Trademark and copyright is not something that is often taught in schools, nor is it well-understood by the public at large,” Cavanagh said.

Instead of schools enforcing the laws of trademark and copyright, they simply restrict children’s usage of the Internet and Web. While these students may not have complete access to it during school hours, they are left free to choose how they use digital media, often with their peers being most influential.

Trademark and copyright aren’t the only issues children face, plagiarism is another challenge.

“Copy-and-paste plagiarism is rampant at U.S. colleges and universities,” said Cavanagh, “Anti-plagiarism service Turnitin found 110 million instances of plagiarism in 40 million student papers in the last 10 months.”

Teaching proper research and writing methods during elementary years may help students avoid plagiarism as they grow into productive and honest students with continuing good behavior as citizens.

Spencerport Central School District’s Technology teacher, Dan Cleveland, teaches roughly 250 middle school students throughout the school year.

“In a way, adolescents are not necessarily mature enough to have the privilege to access all aspects of what the Internet has to offer,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland believes having adequate knowledge and comprehension of technological resources such as computers, the Internet, etc., is what it means to be literate in the 21st Century.  It leaves us to wonder, is the educational system on task with the 21st Century or does it lag behind?

“I believe we are working hard to all be at the same level to be teaching for the “21st century learners,” said Cleveland, “I feel it is difficult for all to be on board and following the same goal.

He continues, “As a technology teacher, growth in the 21st century is our ultimate goal, whereas in other subject areas, it may not be as important.”

In his district, as well as most other school districts, students are not allowed access to social networking sites and have limited access to the Internet and Web.  However, restriction only prevents usage, it doesn’t teach them right or wrong.

For Cleveland’s Technology classes alone he states that roughly 25-30 percent of his students have been properly educated in digital ethics prior to the school year and that number drastically increases by the end of the school year.

While this is only one teacher of one school district, it is apparent how important it is to teach children how to be digitally ethical.

If parents aren’t digitally savvy, it may be necessary to introduce not only ethics at large, but to implement digital ethics and its importance for students to become good digital citizens, into school systems.

Cleveland feels digital ethics should be introduced to children as early as first or second grade.

“The earlier we can create this safe-mind set for students, the better off they will be,” Cleveland said.

Lindsay Thompson, the mother of  a two-year-old and preschool age student, has similar thoughts to Cleveland.

“Good digital practices should be taught both at home and in school,” said Thompson, “Kids should learn the correct way to use the Internet at home and the school system should reinforce the good behavior.”

Not all homes are digitally savvy for various reasons.  With this lack of knowledge, it will be a continuous cycle, leaving future generations with unethical digital practices.  If ethics is practiced in the home, but digital ethics is not, general ethical behavior may still play a role on whether a student thinks twice by their actions in the digital world.

“I think the idea of digital ethics is a little beyond four and five-year-olds,” said Thompson, “But the principles can be applied to things they understand, such as being honest and having respect for others can be taught at a very young age.”

Even though most schools enforce good ethical behavior with signing a code of conduct by the student and parent, not all students and parents are fully aware what digital ethics means.

Instead of exposing students to the full capacity of what the Internet and Web have to offer, they are shielded from it and not taught all the right and wrong, good and bad.  The districts are taking upon the parents to teach it to their children.  However, if the parents don’t know, how will the children and who will do the teaching?

“It’s up to the older kids to teach it to the parents, in return, the parents will learn it too, until all the ages catch up with the present digital age,” said Mark Ellis, a high school senior from the Hilton School District.

“Kids download pictures and music all the time off the Internet for free, and so do their parents, because they think they can,” Ellis said.

If the adults are stealing music, breaking copyright and trademark laws, plagiarizing, sending inappropriate emails and texts, then we can’t blame the children for using the same behaviors.

“I know I’m not supposed to steal from a person, a business or from the Internet because my family taught me right from wrong, not the school district,” said Ellis.  “The school districts definitely need to teach it and talk about it more often in order to know the importance of what is right or wrong in the digital world, or else students may never learn.”

Times change and people continue to adapt to the new, but since the digital world is changing at a rapid rate, some people are left without the knowledge they need to practice good digital ethics, therefore passing on unethical behavior to their children. For those who do practice, they need to model that behavior, beginning at a young age and what better place to do so than in the school system.

Renee Rischenole is a freelance writer, photographer and artist.  You can view her latest work on her website. Contact her at info@reneerischenole.com.

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