David had recently been invited to join a group of kids from his school on Facebook. Since he was somewhat shy around other people and had only recently begun to hang out with these guys, David felt good about being asked to join the group. And, to be sure, it was a lot of fun at first. Until one day . . .
David logged onto Facebook and was disgusted by what he saw. Somebody had posted a photo of a girl in their class and altered it with Photoshop. The image made it look like she was the only girl at a party of boys, scantily dressed, holding a beer, and laughing. The caption under the picture was filled with four-letter words and mentioned her name. David hardly knew the girl, but he did know that she had a reputation as a straight edge and that she was often teased about it. He also knew that this would be very hurtful to her if she ever found out.
David knew it was a private online group and anything posted there was supposedly for the members’ eyes only. But what if someone in a group you belong to posts something offensive—like this photo? Won’t anyone who sees it think it’s from the whole group? David also wondered who else might be able to see what is posted. Can people who aren’t members look at the postings without the group knowing? David knew the other members would think he was overreacting if he made an issue about it. But he also knew that the photo made him feel guilty, a sure sign that his moral compass was tugging at him. So, now what?
Should he say something to the other guys and risk looking like a weirdo? He was sure they would just tell him to lighten up. Should he drop out of the group? That would mean the photo stayed out there and he would just be ignoring the problem. He had a teacher he really respected who he could talk to, but what if the whole thing snowballed into a discipline issue at school? What would happen then? And if he talked to his parents, they might take away his internet access.
David felt stuck. All he did was agree to join a group. Why was this such a problem? What, if anything, should he do?
Notes for the Facilitator
The world of the Internet has spawned a whole new generation of ethical dilemmas; many of them deal with the separate reality (therefore, a separate set of ethics) that seems to exist for young people when they are on line. However, I find that it can be very effective to take a dilemma that has existed forever for young people and use the Internet as a new lens.
The main reason I use this case is that it initiates and sustains a conversation about honoring one’s instinct rather than becoming caught in analysis of a situation. Often, I find myself in a circular discussion with my students about ethical responsibility that involves a lot of disclaimers, (“what if’s”, “but if she does this then it’s okay”, “but it’s legal”.., you name it.) Remember the famous quote, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”? It is important to remind young people that they don’t have to fully understand something to know if something is wrong. They have an internal compass that is directing them at all times if they stop and listen to it. The other reason to use this case is that it is another great example of how actions considered private can affect an entire community, and who is morally responsible in such cases?
While this case gives specific details regarding what was in the photo, feel free to keep that part vague or give a specific hypothetical example of your own to suit the age and focus of your group. The content is not as important as the ripple effect this dilemma can cause.
A last note for what it’s worth: While I am a teen advocate and often find myself defending and explaining young people’s feelings and actions, I draw the line when it comes to the Internet. It is my unpopular opinion that while young people talk a lot about their privacy, they give up that right when they post anything in cyber space.
Discussion Questions (& Debate Topics, Writing Assignments, etc.)
- Which of the options David lists for responding to this dilemma makes the most sense to you? Is there another better idea he may not be thinking of?
- What would you do in this situation? If you think it depends what the photo consists of, where would you draw the line? Why? Can you explain?
- Do you think people should be able to say anything they want if they feel they are on a list that holds their confidentiality? Why? Why not?
- Have you or someone you know ever been in a similar situation? What happened? How do you feel about how the situation was handled?
- Have you ever felt uncomfortable about something but couldn’t exactly explain why? How did you react to your discomfort? Ignore it? Act on it? How?
- If any of the rest of the class or school community gains access to the page with the girl’s photo, do you think the school should discipline the boys? Is this a school issue? Why/why not?
- Is this a community issue if no one but the boys ever see it?
- Do we have any ethical responsibility when using the Internet? If so, how would you define that responsibility?
- What is a moral compass? Do you have one? Does everyone? How can you tell when someone is acting in accordance with his/her own moral compass?