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  • 7th Feb 2023

Improving ethical behaviours online – working with young people to crack the code

Today is Safer Internet Day, the annual global initiative to bring communities together to improve online safety. Perhaps BIT’s biggest contribution in this space is the design and delivery of Digital Compass – a behaviourally informed programme designed with young people to help them behave ethically online.

Digital Compass is a school-based intervention which takes young people through a series of practical activities designed around common online experiences. External facilitators guide students through group discussions and core exercises, such as the ‘I wish people would…’ exercise, generated through evidence and collaboration with young people.

Since the development of Digital Compass in 2017, the online world has changed almost beyond recognition for young people. Facebook is now Meta, and they are leaning in at full speed into the MetaVerse. TikTok is now visited more often than Google. And who knows what new app or website will become an all-consuming social phenomenon in the coming years? Things on the internet are changing so fast that pages now exist to update users on the trends to follow that week! 

In the last month, attention has turned to the natural language AI platform ChatGPT for its uncanny ability to generate student essays that are capable of passing even University level assessments. Some reports indicate that usage is as high as 89% amongst students when completing their homework. Certain schools are outright banning the platform, others are encouraging its use and the AI platform itself is developing a tool to help teachers detect students who misuse it.

If these technologies themselves can’t keep up with their own advancements and applications, how can we expect young people to? We can’t. Instead, we should shift the discussion towards core ethical values, thereby empowering young people to navigate new ethical dilemmas as and when they emerge. 

This is the crux of the approach we have taken with Digital Compass. Given the pace and extent of technological changes, it is no small thing to keep tools and support for young people online  continually relevant and up to date for young people. Digital Compass has been designed to be continually adaptable to this challenge and we hope can provide some useful insights for others managing this issue.

Essentially we think there are three key reasons that enable Digital Compass to adapt and remain relevant:

  1. We co-design and iterate the program to keep the materials fresh
  2. We focus on underlying core values and behaviours
  3. We focus on what young people can do online, rather than what they can’t do  

Digital Compass is the product of co-design

Young people consistently told us that their online experiences don’t reflect the warnings and risks they are told about from parents, the news and school programmes.  This lack of relevance, evidence and constant negativity about the online environment drives young people to disengage with their previous online safety programs. 

Digital Compass offers a new perspective, engaging young people and educators in the process from the very beginning, through collaborative co-design. At every stage of rollout, we speak with young people to understand what behaviours are relevant to them and why. Facilitators consult participants before and after each session to gain valuable information that maintains the relevance of the program – particularly, what’s sticking with young people? Which elements of the program generated really meaningful discussion? Quite simply, we make sure those parts stay. We’ve also learnt what works for schools and teachers, and have redesigned the program so that schools can deliver the core materials in ways that suit them, rather than a single 8 week program.  

Digital Compass focuses on underlying core values and behaviours

Personal values are powerful tools that people use to decide how they should and should not behave across different contexts and environments – both offline and online. Yet our research suggests young people rarely reflect on their personal values, and also lack confidence in determining the right thing to do when faced with an ethically relevant situation.

“[Digital Compass] made me think about how to handle situations if they come up” – DC participant, 2022

Within Digital Compass, young people are given the autonomy to decide what their values are, how that differs or aligns with their peers and whether they themselves want to make changes to their online behaviour to align with their values. Once young people have developed a clearer idea of their values, they are given an opportunity to practise applying these to concrete examples of “online dramas” they might encounter in the real world. 

This focus ensures young people feel empowered, equipped and motivated to respond to situations, triggered by their values rather than a specific online scenario. This also guarantees that we can teach about values and guiding principles, and teachers don’t have to pretend to understand the specifics of how the TikTok algorithm works!

 “You guys taught us how we should treat other people and how the way we treat other people might have a consequence on them.”- DC participant, 2020

Digital Compass focuses on what young people can, rather than can’t do

We have spoken directly with Digital Compass participants and the key thing that stands out is that young people are put at the centre of the discussion, without any power imbalance.  Why is this important? We believe that is why young people have genuinely engaged with us and openly discussed changes in their behaviour – they told us about limiting time on certain apps, monitoring their use of digital tech and reflecting on how they approach online conflict with greater awareness and empathy.

 ‘‘It was a lot different to what we normally do. It wasn’t “you can’t do this’ ‘, it’s more like what we can do”- DC participant, 2022

Importantly, the positive approach within Digital Compass also seems to resonate with schools – teachers and principals alike have told us how Digital Compass “hits the mark” in addressing the needs of young people. Teachers expressed the relevance for year 9 students and valued the fact that we are really “empowering them, rather than telling them what to do.”

So, what next for Digital Compass? 

We believe the online world will never stand still – there will always be developments and with each development, additional pressures are put on our young people. Today in Australia, 99% of 15-17 year olds are online in some capacity – it is imperative that we work with them to ensure offline ethics are extended into the online world. Partnering with The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, we are continuing to roll Digital Compass out across schools in Victoria, Australia. We genuinely believe that we don’t need to know the latest craze, trend or platform to be impactful in this space (and we promise we didn’t use ChatGPT to write this blog!). 


The Digital Compass programme was created in partnership with the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, and funded by the Vincent Family Fairfax Foundation.