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Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Dialogues on the Ethics of Digital Life

Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Dialogues on the Ethics of Digital Life

Written by Erin Wilkey Oh
September 23, 2010

In April 2009, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, three organizations gathered over 250 parents, teachers, and teens for a three-week online conversation called the Focus Dialogues. Prompted by Global Kids, Common Sense Media, and Harvard University’s GoodPlay Project, this endeavor was the first cross-generational online conversation on digital media and ethics. Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Dialogues on the Ethics of Digital Life is a report documenting what was learned through the Focus Dialogues.

Can We Talk?
It’s hard to believe the generation gap was ever more vast than it is in this age of technology. Even those of us who are completely at home in the digital world occasionally shake our heads, surprised by our students’ or children’s online behavior, which we perceive to be reckless or inappropriate.

The Focus Dialogues and subsequent report, Meeting of Minds, is an attempt to bridge this gap by facilitating an open and honest conversation between youth and adults about how we act on the Internet.

Key Issues and Questions
Based on research by Harvard University’s GoodPlay Project into ethical issues online, the Focus Dialogues centered on five areas of interest: identity, privacy, credibility, authorship and ownership, and participation. Organizers developed key questions for each of these areas as an outline for the Dialogues. Questions included:

  • When is it OK, or even helpful, to present one’s identity in a way that isn’t entirely consistent with one’s offline identity?
  • When does it cross a line? How much personal information is reasonable to share online?
  • How do youth assess the credibility of online individuals and information?
  • How do youth relate to the idea of intellectual property and to the practice of illegal downloading?
  • What does it mean to be a responsible citizen of an online community and of the Internet in general?

Within each area of interest, organizers presented questions and scenarios they hoped would be compelling and relevant to both young people and adults. They also made a conscious effort to create a safe space where participants felt comfortable sharing opinions and personal experiences.

Prevalent Patterns
In studying the Focus Dialogues, certain patterns of thinking about online life emerged that were different from those displayed by adults. The dialogues suggest that:

  • Teens are most likely to engage in individualistic and consequence thinking (concern for the self, and for consequences to the self of different courses of action online) across a range of topics (e.g., sharing information online, illegal downloading, cyberbullying, etc.).
  • Teens are somewhat likely to engage in moral thinking (concern for others one knows offline or with whom one interacts online).
  • Teens are least likely to engage in ethical thinking (thinking in abstract, disinterested terms about the effects of one’s actions on the online community at large), though the dialogues did see some incredibly nuanced thinking in this area.


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