Writing a moral code for the online world

  • 2017

Technology has fundamentally changed the way young people grow, learn and interact.

Every decision to pick up a mobile phone, post an image, reach out to a friend, or ‘pile on’ when someone has posted a controversial statement, can have huge and long-lasting consequences. How we choose to help young people navigate through these choices will shape society for many years to come.  The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to intensify this need but sadly, current resources and programs fall short.


Try out one of our Digital Compass activities for yourself


Using BI to solve complex issues

Since 2017 we have been working with the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and the Alannah and Madeline Foundation on a project to support young people to behave more ethically online.

Complex issues like ethical behaviour require deep understanding from the perspective of the people involved. To do this we have consulted and collaborated with young people over the duration of the project, including via a citizen’s jury and design sprint with over 60 representative young people across Sydney.


“VFFF is especially pleased that young people are at the centre of this program, informing its development, providing honest feedback and bringing a balanced perspective to the debates that often occur without their voice”. – Jenny Wheatley, Chief Executive Officer, Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation

What others do changes what we do 

What young people told and showed to us, was that a key mechanism shaping their ethical behaviour is their perception of what their peers are doing. This should not have been too surprising, we know that social norms affect adult’s behaviour and we warn young people about the dangers of peer pressure.

We also found that many of the ethical dilemmas that young people found themselves in were ambiguous and it wasn’t clear what the norms were. The rapid pace of technological change often leaves moral codes for new spaces unwritten, so young people look to each other.


Digital Compass 

The culmination of our research was the development of an 8 week in-school program called Digital Compass, which uses the power of social norms, along with other evidence based mechanisms, to support behaviour change in young people.  Crucially the program helps young people work out what they can do online instead of just telling them what they can’t, a criticism of existing programs by many of the young people and schools we spoke to.

During the program young people enthusiastically engage in debate around what online behaviours are considered okay and not okay; exploring the nuance and having profound moments of realisation that perhaps one of the things they had been doing online in fact was not okay, and most people don’t do it. This realisation provides them the opportunity to correct their own behaviour to be more in line with the agreed norm.

Young people have told us that they often want to challenge how their peers behave online but this is difficult to do alone and unsupported. Digital Compass is facilitated in a way that creates a safe space for young people to discuss these challenging moral issues with their peers and scaffolds the discussion with an ethical framing to help young people agree with their peers what is ok and not ok online. As everyone has had a stake in deciding what is right and what is wrong, they have a stake in living their life by it.


Are you influenced by what others think?

Digital Compass is focused on young people and their use of technology, however we know that adults too are struggling to navigate ambiguous ethical scenarios online. We invite you to participate in a social norms activity very similar to one run in Digital Compass. Tell us if these commonly experienced online behaviours are mostly okay or not and once you have made your judgement, you will see how your views compare to other adults who have completed the activity.  

Try it out, you might be surprised by what others think is ok and not ok online and whether your views are in line with the majority.   


Participate in the activity