Teens capable of dealing with ethical challenges online when equipped with the right skills, program finds

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday February 26, 2020

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We have “cause to be optimistic” when it comes to the relationship between young people and the digital environment, according to the New South Wales Department of Education deputy secretary Leslie Loble.

A panel of experts discussed how young people can be supported with navigating ethical challenges online at an event hosted by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in Sydney on Monday.

Panellists included Loble, Google head of public policy and government relations Samantha Yorke, and BIT program director Sheridan Hartley.

Three school students who have participated in BIT’s Digital Compass program — which has aimed to support young people to use technology ethically — also spoke on the panel. They argued that most of the time, teenagers have positive experiences with the internet and social media.

However, they acknowledged that when dealing with confronting or challenging situations online, young people do need support from adults.

Loble noted that while children are often optimistic and have an “incredible depth of thinking” when it comes to digital technology, adults often fear the digital realm due to a lack of education. Despite this fear, she argued adults have a responsibility to “model and create safe environments for kids” to talk about the ethical challenges they face online.

Eighteen months ago, BIT held a two day forum with roughly 70 young people who were recruited via social media and were unknown to each other, Hartley told The Mandarin. The process was a constant collaboration with the students, she said, where BIT would regularly clarify what the young people meant, to ensure they didn’t “edit out the young peoples’ voices”.

The engagement with young people was combined with findings from literature on moral development and behavioural science to create BIT’s Digital Compass program.

The program was piloted in five schools in NSW and Victoria during 2019, and ran for one period every week for eight weeks. The time frame was designed to ensure a lasting impact and to give the students “room to breathe” when it came to reflecting on some of the more challenging ethical conversations, according to BIT managing director Australia and Asia-Pacific Dr Rory Gallagher.

The program promoted self reflection, prompting young people to think about how they can change their online environment. It encouraged the students to discuss what is and isn’t okay online with their peers, and to challenge the social norms. Participants also established behaviour plans where they identified behaviours they’d like to change.

“We collect some data about the young people, and we enable them to report on what they’re doing online and how that’s making them feel. Then they compare it to their peers,” Hartley said.

“That’s been a really powerful component of the program, either to validate some of the feelings they’re having themselves — where they say, ‘yes, my friends are also struggling with this’ — or to highlight where they’re different to their peers, and where they could perhaps improve on some of the things that they’re not doing as well.”

Gallagher said the program has essentially been led by young people due to the extensive engagement process.

“Co-design is one of the big buzzwords in government, but it’s far more talked about than it is practiced … it is intensive, it does take time, it does take money, it forces you to challenge your own assumptions and you have to keep doing it,” he said.

He noted teaching the students about the ways tech works to influence behaviour was something they have shown a lot of interest in.

“There seems to be emerging evidence that teens are especially receptive if you highlight how their behavior is being targeted or manipulated … that is the most effective way to engage rather than preaching about the effects or the outcomes,” he said.

While some of the topics dealt with in the program have been quite confronting — such as nude images and child pornography — Hartley noted some participants have wanted to address those tricky issues.

“Young people do seem to be quite open with having those challenging ethical conversations, and they do want to have those conversations with an adult to get some advice and guidance, whereas we originally were not sure whether young people would even want to talk about these things with an adult,” she said.

She noted young people appreciated being able to have those conversations in a safe space that was guided — rather than controlled — by adults.

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