Educating our kids to thrive online

We can help young people to live well online through character education, writes Tom Harrison.

How can we successfully educate children and adolescents to flourish online?

That’s a big question, one that to my knowledge no one has a very good answer to. At least no one has an answer that is comprehensive, based on evidence, and practical—an answer that provides parents and teachers with clear guidance about what to do.

Perhaps some of you reading this might question why we need to do anything. Since Sir Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web, we’ve seen a stream of books, publications, and articles arguing that ‘the kids are alright’ and we should largely leave them to their own (internet-enabled) devices.

So, I want to state from the outset that I am a fan of the internet. In the right hands, it can change society for the good and be an important tool in our fight against global challenges, such as pandemics and the environmental crisis.

However, I only have to listen to stories told to me by my children and their friends to understand that it also brings risks for them and wider society. If we would like our children to make the most of the opportunities and to be exposed to less of the risks, then I think parents and teachers have a duty to intervene and strive to help their children find ways to live well online.

If you agree that parents and teachers should not be hands-off when it comes to educating children to live well online, then you are probably asking (like me) two more big questions. What should we be educating our children about in the digital age, and how should we go about this education?

This is when what might be called education for online flourishing gets tricky. From the outset, it is important to state that it is so tricky because of the actions of many of the companies that run social media platforms and other apps that use the internet. So many of the big players have seemingly prioritised (despite their rhetoric) market value over human values. They have designed new playgrounds for our children that, because of limited government regulation or self-regulation, are often minefields full of moral obstacles. What is more, many tech leaders have not proven to be particularly good moral exemplars.

However, this article is not about the moral misdemeanors of tech companies; I’m writing for parents and teachers dealing with the fallout from the rapid technological innovation. What can we do, right now, to help our kids cultivate character strengths and virtues online? This is a question I have been addressing with colleagues at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (based at the University of Birmingham, U.K.) for several years. Here’s what we’ve found so far.

How Aristotle can help

Part of the educational challenge is down to the nature of the internet and social media platforms—the affordances that they bring for their users.

First, many of us simply do not know what our children are doing online; it’s somewhat of a black box. For example, whereas it was easy to spot aggression in the playground, it is much harder to know if our children are subjected to (or perpetrating) bullying on platforms like Snapchat.

Second, rules online are different: Children can transcend time and space in a way I never could when I grew up. If I wanted to speak to a friend, I had to hang around on the street until one came along, call them on a tethered landline, or wait until I saw them in school. In the age of TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, this is not the case; it’s not uncommon for children to have thousands of micro-interactions with their friends, if unrestricted, all day and night.

Those affordances alone don’t mean that children will necessarily behave unvirtuously online, but they have changed the rules of engagement. When children think they can act anonymously and in ways that are largely unrestricted, then it is perhaps not surprising that worrying internet trends like harmful TikTok challenges spring up, where children are encouraged to commit shocking actions, such as messing up school signs or smacking a teacher.

In the absence of compulsive evidence about what educational approaches work, I started my research with theory. Moral theory, to be more precise.

In my early research, I listened to many children explain the differences between their lives online and offline. Most had positive things to say about the internet, but what became clear was that if we are to help our children live well online, then we must adjust our thinking about how we educate in the digital age. The more conversations I had, the more I realized we cannot rely (if we ever could) on a sticks-and-carrots approach to parenting and teaching. More traditional approaches, such as banning phones and restricting internet access, had some merit, but many children explained how they outfoxed adults by finding ways to bypass rules and restrictions.

Likewise, education that was grounded in consequentialist thinking also was limited. Many children told me of their surprise about where a picture they had sent had ended up, or how online communications sent in the heat of the moment had caused so much upset. My research led me to believe that we need to instead investigate how a third moral theory, virtue ethics, might inform educational practice in the online world.

Virtue ethics has the longest history of the three main moral theories, dating back to Aristotle and one of his more famous publications, Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle believed that human flourishing should be the highest form and most widely accepted goal of life. To flourish is about happiness but also about fulfilling one’s own potential. For Aristotle, the path to flourishing is through living a life of character and virtue.

Although Aristotle was writing 2,000 years before the internet was invented, I believe his core theory of ethics is as helpful today as ever. Sure, it needs some updating and applying to the moral dilemmas of the day, but it is a great place to start.

If we want to help children to not just survive but thrive online, we need them to display virtues that have bound people together for many years. These are the virtues of honesty, compassion, courage, humility, gratitude, social justice, and others. When a critical mass of internet users display these virtues, then the technology can truly be a force for good. In the absence of these virtues, it can be a place of abuse, crime, and misinformation that hurts individuals and undermines the fabric of society.

The components of online virtue

Of course, virtue ethical theory looks great on paper. Very few people would disagree that our experiences of living on- or offline are improved when the people we interact with are kind, generous, honest, and acting with integrity.

So I’ll return now to the second, harder question: How should we go about this education? How can we help our children to cultivate desirable qualities and, most importantly, display these online, especially when no one is watching?

Much of my work in recent years has focused on evaluating educational approaches to honing the virtue I have termed cyber-wisdom. I recently published a book entitled Thrive: How to Cultivate Character So Your Children Can Flourish Online, which gives practical advice for parents on how to hone cyber-wisdom in their children. With academic and teaching colleagues, I am soon to publish a complementary book for schools that proposes a new comprehensive framework for digital citizenship education, approached from a character-based virtue ethics perspective.

Indeed, character, character education, and a focus on cyber-wisdom are at the heart of both these books. These publications and others are informed by my own and my colleagues’ applied research at the Jubilee Centre. For example, recently we conducted a survey in the UK that showed that both adolescents and parents prize wisdom as the most important virtue in the digital age. We have also published a paper on a conceptual four-component model of cyber-wisdom that builds on the Jubilee Centre’s wider work on phronesis. The components, all of which we believe can be educated, are:

  1. Cyber-wisdom literacy. This is the ability and language needed to identify different virtues online;
  2. Cyber-wisdom reasoning. The intellectual and critical ability to reflect on the best course of action online, particularly when presented with moral dilemmas and in ways that are dependent on context;
  3. Cyber-wisdom self-reflection. This is the practice of reflecting on one’s own experiences online and of navigating, accordingly, the different perspectives and emotions involved in the process of making moral decisions online; and
  4. Cyber-wisdom motivation. This entails both a subjective and a collective vision of the good life, as well as a motivation toward achieving human flourishing online.

Currently, we are developing a new program that seeks to educate 13 to 16 year olds about those four components of cyber-wisdom. The results of this evaluation will be published in 2022. With this program and my other work on education for online flourishing, we aim toward the goal of autonomous virtue reasoning and practice. This involves helping children to develop wisdom that they can apply to their lives online and to using social media, as opposed to telling children how to behave. It is about providing stories, exemplars, scaffolding, mentoring, support, understanding, forgiveness, and much else besides helping children experiment online and make better decisions over time.

We still have a great deal of work to do. For now, what is important is that we understand the importance of cultivating character qualities and cyber-wisdom if we want to help both our children and society to flourish in the digital age.

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About the article

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.  You can read the original.