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Introduce Your Kids to Internet Ethics

LAKSHMI on November 13, 2014

There are some basic ethical values that transcend the mélange of cultures and peoples sizzling in the melting pot of the Internet and many of the maxims that define human society hold good, perhaps even more so, in the virtual world. “Thou shall not steal”, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and the mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru apes that see, hear and speak no evil are three specific truths apt to this environment.

Kids Using the Internet

“Thou shall not steal” is a much clearer concept in the real world than in the virtual world. This is obvious; the real world deals with physical objects. It is easy to teach a child that stealing other people’s pencils, crayons  - “stuff”- is unacceptable and, more importantly punishable. But in the online world, the idea of stealing becomes murky because there are no physical objects to steal. It is often not even clear what constitutes theft. According to Digital Citizens Alliance, 62 percent of online users were unaware of the legal status of movies, music, games, or books they had downloaded. To complicate matters, the idea of punishments in online theft is vague – there are no virtual corners in which your child can be made to stand for downloading a movie without paying for it.  A child must be taught that pirating is, as the name suggests, theft, although not quite as romantic as Hollywood makes it out to be, and is very much like walking into a video store and pocketing a DVD in stealth.

Pirate downloads are the more obvious of thefts. What is more subtle and almost invisible is theft of ideas and words. With the internet becoming the veritable repository of almost all known human knowledge, idea theft - plagiarism - is rampant. A verbatim copy of a professional document, with claims of it being one’s own, starts with school homework reports copy pasted from Wikipedia.  Ctrl C, Ctrl V are probably the most widely misused shortcut keys in the history of the PC. Given the enormity of information available online, it is next to impossible to trace the theft, without proper tools, but that does not legitimize it. Just as the child is taught that copying in an exam is wrong, she must also be taught the inconsonance of mindless copy-pasting of stuff from the net. It is also important to teach the child to offer credit where it is due, and the idea of referencing someone else’s work must be taught early on. This little lesson on acknowledgement is applicable to the big picture of life as well.

A child learns early, and sometimes painfully, that doing unto others what she does not want done unto her, is not a wise move, in the real world.  However the cushion of anonymity offered by Internet obviates this reciprocity clause. While the medium is virtual, its effect on reality is indubitable. The Internet allows us to live and interact across extensive physical spaces with no boundaries. Thus, while in the past, we shared our life with those geographically close to us, we are now part of, pardon the cliché, the Global Village, with unknown faces peeking into our lives.

While in the physical world, people who affected us were largely friends and family, in the online spaces that we inhabit, those who affect us are often people that we repeatedly observe without direct interactions – Stanley Milgram’s concept of Familiar Strangers could never be a better fit anywhere else. Thus, our ethics and belief systems are readily influenced by the strangers we “meet” online and in turn we influence faceless people in ways we could not imagine. Anyone with a blog would have experienced at least once, trolls who topple their emotional balance. Contrary to the popular lore that words, unlike sticks and stones, need never hurt, they do, and this sentiment must be instilled in the child. Cyber bullying and anonymous harassment are actually crimes punishable by law, and the child must be aware of this, but beyond law enforcement, it is basic human courtesy to “be nice” to people both on and off-line.

Of the three apes, the mizaru, the one that sees no evil, was probably created by the wise people of the East just for the Internet, either by fluke or with really far-sighted vision. The Internet is like a knife that can be used to cut that apple that keeps the doctor at bay, or to inflict pain. The choice is not easy, even for an adult; it is hardly surprising that the child needs mentoring to use and not abuse the net. The net is the source of knowledge (if not wisdom), but not all knowledge is good. While we are still a long way from being consumed by “all the knowledge”, like Irina Spalko, age-inappropriate information can cause just as much damage to the child’s psych. The “good touch bad touch” talk to every child must necessarily be accompanied by the “good site, bad site” advice.

There are no generalized censors in the Internet, just as in real life. That, however, does not justify anarchy. While customs, beliefs and ethical laws may vary across geographic boundaries, there are some universal truths that are essential for order and balance. It is up to us to use the right tools and techniques to instill such a balance in our children.

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Photo credit: dalbera / Foter / CC BY

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