It’s a familiar scenario: A teenager snaps a picture of underage classmates drinking alcohol at a party. The photos go up on a social-networking Web site and land on the desk of an athletic coach or a school administrator. The students pictured are suspended from school or booted off their teams.
Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education say stories like that one illustrate one of the ways new digital media are raising distinct ethical challenges and temptations for young people today.
“Even though many young people may not be ready to participate in the wider communities that digital media open up to them, there is no controlling information about yourself or others that gets posted,” says Howard Gardner, the project’s co-director. “It’s a situation that’s foisted upon young persons who are not ready for it.”
Gardner, an eminent psychologist best known for his multiple-intelligences theory, is working with a team of researchers at Project Zero, the research center he helped create at the graduate school, to study how students’ use of digital media affects the development of their “ethical minds.”
Known as the GoodPlay Project, the study is being financed with a grant from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. What researchers hope to do through the project is fill a gap in the burgeoning research literature on young people’s use of digital media, including social-networking sites, blogs, online games, Wikipedia, and virtual worlds, such as Second Life.
While most studies are mapping out what young people are learning and doing in their digital lives, the GoodPlay Project is probing the ethical contours of those electronic worlds in an effort to better understand how digital technology shapes young people’s character.
“What’s interesting about the GoodPlay Project is that, while it is taking a broad look at the common, fundamental issues that involve youth and digital media, it is also taking a qualitative look at the idea that these young people are actually developing social norms that are quite different from adult values and behavior,” says Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Ethical Minds