This week marked Safer Internet Day, a global initiative which aims to raise awareness about online safety issues. This is a story that we hear frequently in the media: that the internet, especially social media, is an unsafe space, filled with dangerous content and cyber bullying. In particular, with technology becoming increasingly fundamental in their everyday lives, there’s a growing panic that young people are growing up devoid of a moral compass, because of the influences of the online world.
The reality, though, is of course far more nuanced than this story suggests. It’s true that young people are experiencing antisocial behaviours, such as swearing and abuse during online gaming. But they are also using online spaces to connect, learn and support each other.
The answer, then, isn’t to avoid online spaces, or solely focus on highlighting the dangers of cyber criminals, bullies and predators. To really make the internet safer for young people, what they need — and what they’ve told us they want — is support and guidance to navigate their increasingly interconnected digital lives.
With the right support, can we change the way young people act online?
The short answer is: yes, we can.
Our BIT Australia team, along with our collaborators The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, developed and trialled a behaviourally-informed in-school program, Digital Compass. Digital Compass is an 8 week in-school program for 14-16 year olds. It uses evidence-based practical activities, data-driven insights, and guided group discussions to help young people reflect on past behaviours and modify future behaviours.
It empowers young people with the tools to safely intervene in conflicts, challenge social norms, and adjust their online environments to support more socially conscious behaviour. Importantly, Digital Compass was developed in an iterative codesign process with young people to ensure their voices were embedded in the solution.
Results from our randomised controlled trial with 461 students suggest that Digital Compass does work to help young people behave more ethically online. Digital Compass increased the number and frequency of self-reported prosocial behaviour, like complimenting or comforting a friend online. Promisingly, this increase was greatest in more challenging, visible prosocial behaviours, such as standing up for others online — behaviours young people felt were more socially risky, but ones that were important for setting online social norms and perceptions of acceptable behaviour.
You guys taught us how we should treat other people and how the way we treat other people might have a consequence on them.”
Digital Compass participant
However, a complex problem like changing young peoples’ online behaviours doesn’t come without a complex answer.
The flip side is that Digital Compass also had the opposite effect: it increased the number and frequency of self-reported antisocial behaviours as well, such as insulting or excluding someone online. While we weren’t expecting this result, we believe it was because Digital Compass increased young people’s awareness of these behaviours as problematic, and caused them to report more of that behaviour than they had previously — a theory that was validated by young people in post-trial interviews.
Although this result seems like a contradictory one, it’s also a nuanced one. A raised awareness of problematic behaviours online is an overall positive outcome, if it can lead to more ethical decision making. It shows us, though, that changing young people’s online behaviour is possible — but it’s not black-and-white, and not without challenges.
Where do we go from here?
While initial results are promising, feedback from young people, teachers and parents has highlighted opportunities to further develop the program. In particular, young people told us they valued exploring data on their personal online behaviours, debating what is and is not OK with their peers, understanding how social media platforms influence their behaviours, and, crucially, opportunities to build their ethical muscles and practice online behavioural changes.
We’re now working with VFFF and AMF to iterate the program to deepen the impact of Digital Compass. Commencing in 2022, we’re partnering with schools who have the need and capacity to address this issue, to contextualise and roll out the program. We hope to expand this to more schools each year to create meaningful, sustainable behaviour change for young people in Australia, and ideally globally, in a way that’s relevant for them.
Keen to know more? Want to get Digital Compass into your school? Looking for other ways to get involved? Get in touch with Sheridan Hartley to talk all things Digital Compass, ethical behaviour online, and codesign with young people.
* Results caveat: The RCT was intended to be in the field for two school terms in 2021. However, a COVID-19 outbreak shifted schools into remote learning, and so we were unable to complete the RCT. This means our ability to detect an effect was reduced. To help address this challenge, we conducted 15 student interviews and a number of data shareback sessions with students to explore our findings directly with the young people who contributed to them.