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Cyber ethics education

Teaching Young People about Cybercrime

In a recent Workplace Ethics blog I addressed the issue of cybercrime and how it affects us on a personal level and in business organizations. The purpose this blog is to look at the causes of cybercrime amongst our youngsters and cyber ethics education to address these issues. As with all ethics education, it should start at an early age, be continuous throughout one’s educational experiences, and be supported in the home.

New research has found that peer influence and low self-control are associated with juvenile cybercrimes, including computer hacking, online bullying, digital piracy, and viewing online pornography.

Criminologist Thomas Holt at Michigan State University and colleagues surveyed more than 400 middle and high school students and found that those whose friends committed cybercrime were more likely to do the same. Previous research tended to focus on college students rather than younger offenders.

Holt stresses the need for parents’ awareness of their children’s social circle and Internet activity. “It’s important to know what your kids are doing when they’re online and who they are associating with both online and offline.”

According to the study, published online in the American Journal of Criminal Justice on June 17, 2011, a lack of self-control is also correlated with cybercrimes in middle and high school students, but Holt said this aspect is harder for parents to deal with. “These are the more risk-taking, impulsive kids; they’re more likely to act on opportunity,” he explained. “So understanding your children’s potential for behavior is important as well.”

Holt said that parental-control computer programs can help, but he noted that children are often able to evade such software.

“It’s not just enough to have a Net Nanny,” Holt said. “Parents need to be more proactive with their kids and discuss these ethical dilemmas to using a computer, such as whether it’s right or wrong to steal music or to download something without paying for it.

I feel strongly that cyber ethics education is a must. Students tend to react more positively to discussing right and wrong behavior when they are personally invested. After all, it is difficult to discuss with youngsters the ethics of some Congressional representative; they can’t relate; they have no frame of reference. However, using computers to steal information or bully others is front and center in their consciousness.  

Dr. Marvin Berkowitz of St. Louis University conducted an analysis of the behavioral development factors that must be considered in searching for an optimal age range for instruction of cyber ethics. Dr. Berkowitz concluded that the 9-12 ages was a "very reasonable" age to target for a first time strategy of cyber ethics instruction. Several factors led to this conclusion. This age range is considered a "gateway" age and has been used by other groups to begin message delivery; e.g. substance abuse and sex education. Absent hard data on the age at which children actually begin to go on line, we can generally assume that by age 13 children have routine access to the Internet. The 9-12 ages is also the point in development where children begin to understand abstract values, for example, privacy rights, and can begin to evaluate the consequences of their actions. It is important to be able to think abstractly, particularly when working in a medium that is routinely described as "virtual."

Dr. Berkowitz explored seven issues that could be potentially addressed in a cyber-ethics awareness campaign. Dr. Berkowitz suggests that each cyber specific issue encompasses one or more "derivative" issues. For example, the cyber issue of computer hacking contains the derivative (or core) issues of theft, vandalism and privacy. Copyright issues contain the derivative issues of theft and ownership. Other cyber behavior problems can be dissected in the same way. It is important to identify these derivative issues as they are often dealt with in value, ethics and character education.

General character education has been found to have great preventive power, even when the specific issues in which they are contained are never discussed. Thus any discussion, formal or informal, of behavior, ethics and responsibility has the potential to develop core values essential to acceptable online behavior.

Technology is neither good nor bad, nor even neutral. Technology is one part of the complex relationships that people form with each other and the world around them. How we use the technology – for what purpose – is what determines whether it is used for good purposes or bad purposes. As in most things in life, it all depends on one’s attitude and beliefs about right and wrong. Albert Einstein once said: “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 12, 2012