In this expert interview, Common Sense Media met with renowned educator and psychologist Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We talked about his latest research on digital media, his views on ethics, his advice for parents, and the one issue that is the toughest to tackle.

You’ve been studying children and ethics. What have you learned?

Howard Gardner: I’ve been studying ethics for many years. One of the interesting findings we made in working with young people is that they know what it means to be ethical, and some of them aspire to be ethical. But we often hear from young kids that they think ethics is for later, after they’re rich and successful and famous, and then they’re going to try to do the right thing. But in the meantime they’re afraid their peers are not ethical. Their peers are cutting corners, and they don’t want to lose out to them. So we began to work with young people to try to help them realize that ethics is not just for later, it’s for every day. It’s being a responsible human being.

Tell us about your research around young people and digital media.

Initially we asked: what are young people’s responsibilities when they become involved with digital media? We looked at ethics and responsibility and identified five issues. The surprising thing is — five issues are the most important but in ways we hadn't anticipated. They all boil down to one issue.

What are the five issues that you found? Which one trumps them all?

These are the five issues: identity, privacy, ownership/authorship, trustworthiness/credibility, and participation in community. What we hadn’t anticipated until we looked at these issues very hard and began to do empirical work, is that the one that trumps all the other ones is participation in the community. Once you enter any kind of a network, there’s simply no way of knowing how big it is, what’s going to happen to the information, whether it ever will be erased. You lose control of it.

And, while adults can understand that and can take a certain amount of responsibility, all the evidence we have about young people, whether they’re seven or twelve, is that it’s very difficult to understand that kind of permanence.

And yet, the fundamental issue raised by the new digital media is to be able to recognize that whatever you do and whatever you say and whatever you create in the digital media has an unknown lifespan and an unknown geographical reach.

Until the digital media were invented, it wasn’t the case that a five-year-old could already become involved in a huge community. The fundamental challenge that parents face in working with young people is that young kids can’t be expected to understand the size of the online community, and yet they could actually have influence on others or be hurt or damaged themselves. You can’t simply say that participation in community now is the same as it was before the digital media.

As Americans we’re all very good at stating what our rights are. The question is, what are your responsibilities as a member of a community?

So how do you help parents and teachers to teach digital ethics?

Well, first of all, nobody can teach anything unless they understand it themselves. And to the extent that parents or teachers are not digital natives, they need to start working with the digital media. They need to be aware of what you can do with mobile technology, instant messaging, texting, Tweeting and so on. They need to have some knowledge and understand on an intuitive level the issues about identity, privacy, and community participation.

I think once adults understand that, then the most important thing to do is to model responsible behavior. Parents and teachers can lend as much of a hand, as much scaffolding as the young person needs to protect themselves and other people.

Whether you’re a parent or a teacher, you can’t assume what the child knows or doesn’t know, what the child understands or doesn’t understand. You’ve got to co-explore with the child.

So what’s at stake if we don’t raise good digital citizens?

What’s it like to live in a society where you don’t trust other people and they don’t trust you? What’s it like to be in a society where you can present yourself in any way you want and nobody knows who you really are? What’s it like to be around someone who can spread all sorts of rumors about other people? What’s it like to live in a world where you can take stuff that people worked on for years and give it away? Or what would it be like to join a community that exists just to bully other people?

It’s hell. It’s like Lord of the Flies. If you want to live in a society like that, I hope I don’t have anything to do with you.

What do kids think about being good digital citizens?

Kids do not feel vulnerable. They feel the same way the 15-year-old might feel the first time he gets behind the wheel of a car.

One of the big shocks we’ve had in our own research is the difference between how kids talk about this stuff and how they behave. What they expose about themselves or others has no relationship to the caution they express in their discussions. That huge void between “Oh yeah, I know about privacy. Oh yeah, I know about trustworthiness,” and how kids treat each other, or don’t care what they do, has been a surprising and, frankly, kind of upsetting aspect of the research.

What advice do you have about teaching digital citizenship to young kids?

When kids are young — five, six, seven, eight – you’d better be there, because most children that age will not understand the kinds of things online that can hurt them or others. It means being at the child’s side most of the time and helping the child answer questions. But after that I think that you cannot control everything the child does — and probably it’s not a good idea to try. You hope you’ve instilled some awareness of the potentials as well as the dangers of these media.

And you hope that there’s enough trust that when something uncomfortable happens, the child will come to you and ask for advice.

How can we close the gap between understanding and behavior for older kids?

Once your kids are pre-adolescents or adolescents, there has to be a degree of trust. And when kids do things that are damaging to themselves or others, then there has to be accountability.

This is something every generation has to realize — things that become obvious to you after a certain age are not going to be obvious to you when you’re young. That’s why we need to have the most powerful models and messages to convey what we really feel is sacred.

One of the sayings I like is that children almost never listen to what parents say, but they always notice what you do.

Audrey S.

Audrey managed the education products at Common Sense Education, with a primary focus on our digital citizenship program. She previously oversaw the marketing outreach to our educator community. Prior to joining Common Sense, Audrey worked at the San Francisco SPCA animal hospital and shelter. She received her degree in Marketing from San Francisco State University.