Skip to content

Why ethics matter online

19th Dec 2017


Aristotle was not on Snapchat. We can only speculate about what would have been on Lao Tzu’s Tumblr. And Marcus Aurelius, mercifully, never had to update his Instagram Story.

But although the world of apps and social media would have been alien to history’s great ethicists, the converse doesn’t have to be true: ethics has an important place online.

Over the last decade, digital media have commanded a growing share of our collective time and attention. How we think, act and treat each other online matters more than ever. For young people, it affects the kind of adults they will become. We should be asking how changing technology can be used to foster, rather than hinder, ethical development.

The Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation (VFFF) recognised the importance of this question, and earlier this year, together we announced the start of the Code for Online Decisions & Ethics (CODE) program. As the program moves from its initial research phase into prototyping solutions, we wanted to share some of what we’ve learned so far.

The ingredients for ethical development

Moral, evolutionary and cultural psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, game theory, and even primatology all have something to say about ethics. From this crowded field, we wanted to extract some practical insights that, with input from young people themselves, could become promising solutions. What needs to happen for young people to make ethical decisions in the moment? And what conditions need to be in place for a young person to flourish as an ethical person over time, aware of and equal to the duties they have to other people?

Four ingredients stand out:

  • Moral awareness and engagement. Having the right moral values is no use if you don’t apply them when it counts. This means avoiding both ‘ethical fading’ – when we fail to even notice the ethical components of our decisions – and moral disengagement – where, after doing something wrong, we mentally reframe it (for example by blaming the victim) to protect our image of ourselves as good people.
  • Character skills. Once young people recognise the right thing to do, character skills such as empathy, self-efficacy, and self-control can turn that recognition into action. Lots has been written about their importance for employment, earnings, and health, but they matter just as much ethical behaviour, especially where the right choice is not the comfortable one.
  • The environment. A young person’s decisions are shaped to a large degree by their environment, and in an online context, simple changes – modifying notification settings, deleting addictive apps, installing browser filters – can get you a lot further than willpower alone.
  • Social support. Family, peers, teachers, and role models all shape the values a young person comes to adopt, and they can offer the practical support needed to make lasting changes.

Where to now

We’re now looking at putting these insights into practice with our program partners, The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, ReachOut, and the Top Blokes Foundation. Over the coming months we’re going to be developing three promising options:

  1. A playbook for overcoming the barriers to ‘upstanding’ (as opposed to bystanding) online, such as “It’s none of my business”, “I don’t know how to help”, or “I didn’t know how to help”, while avoiding stressful escalation and abusive pile-ons;
  2. Sharing the best tools and strategies, many developed by young people, for shaping your own online environment. We want to help young people actively choose how their relationship with technology plays out, rather than finding themselves defaulted into things they regret, whether that’s checking Snapchat for an hour before going to bed or falling out with friends over Instagram likes.
  3. Using online tools, such as simple messages and prompts, to unlock the potential that already exists in young people’s social networks, and especially in relationships with family and friends. The issues teenagers are grappling with are often the same online as they are offline, and we want to make sure that the online-offline distinction doesn’t get in the way of good conversations and good parenting.

The most important step will be putting these ideas through their paces with young people themselves, and as 2018 approaches we’re very excited to get started.


The CODE team is Sheridan Hartley, Erin Howard, Nicky Quinn, Min-Taec Kim, Jess Heal, Rory Gallagher and Ed Bradon. We thank the members of our Program Executive Group, Professor Joseph Ciarrochi, Jenny Donovan (NSW Department of Education), Professor Robert Wood and Samantha Yorke (Google) for their expertise. We also thank our academic partners, The Positive Computing Lab at Sydney University, The Institute for Positive Psychology & Environment at The Australian Catholic University and The Institute of Society and Culture at Western Sydney University. Most importantly, thanks to all the young people who have participated in this program to date, allowing us a window into their world.