Research, ethics and the internet

As a relatively new blogger, I’ve become interested in lots of issues in digital media. One issue that comes up time and time again, in a variety of contexts is how we *allow* ourselves to be represented online through various formats of digital media (e.g. blogs, social-networking sites, Wikipedia, virtual worlds, etc.).

An recent article in Education Week online highlights a current project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education led by psychologist Howard Gardner, in which researchers are looking at the kinds of unique ethical issues faced by the pervasiveness of the digital world in the lives of most young people. Here is the story (you do need a subscription to get the full story, but a one week free subscription is available): Project probes digital media’s effect on ethics.

Here are two noteworthy findings from the data collected so far:

First, many young people are not prepared to make decisions about how they are represented or how their own images are disseminated online. WIthout clear established norms about how one *should* treat images, statements about or representations of another person – how many people have posted pictures of others on their Facebook pages, tagging others without asking them first? – young people are making the ethical rules up as they go.

Second, the researchers state that we’ve gone from an age of “Walter Cronkite to Sarah Palin”. In other words, the ways in which young people regard institutions have moved from ideas about authority and representing oneself in a way that would be considered objectively acceptable to a more modern ideological choice to present oneself as truly authentic and transparent, good or bad, without thoughtful consideration of the possible consequences of these kinds of choices. Furthermore, most youth interviewed by Gardner and his colleagues said that the idea of responsibility and “ethics” was considered as optional for young people today and was instead, something that one only had to worry about when older and more established.

This is a challenge for all of us involved in digital media, from casual Facebook or Wikipedia users to hardcore bloggers (I’m not putting myself in that category by any means, yet!). Ethics review boards are going to have to start thinking about this issue – or they should be already. The preliminary findings of this project demonstrate that young people today have unique ideas about what “ethics” is in terms of how one *should* interact with others and represent oneself, through digital mediums. Second, it shows a level of comfort that borders on nonchalance about the way in which their photos, ideas, images and opinions are shared online. With social networking sites, blogs and dedicated websites already being used to recruit participants, collect data and even disseminate results of research in creative and innovative ways, these finding are especially compelling. They will, for sure, create new ethical challenges for ethics review boards to consider in areas like consent, data management and security, privacy, confidentiality and sharing of research findings.

More reading:

FYI, The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Special Working Committee, a working committee of the Interagency Advisory Panel on Research Ethics (PRE) has a report entitled Extending the Spectrum: The TCPS and Ethical Issues in Internet-based Research

~ by Nancy Walton on November 20, 2008.

2 Responses to “Research, ethics and the internet”

  1. Thanks Nancy,Interesting post. Stumbled upon an article.“If you take pictures and put them on Facebook, you’ve deliberately surrendered your privacy,” Also, some information about the psychology behind facebook and other SNS.

  2. Someone once said that if you would not stand at the end of your driveway and shout your message to your neighborhood, why would you put it in an email or on FACEBOOK?

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