Today I continue our conversation on how the ethical issues that present themselves to young people using social media by talking about participation.  The start of our conversation is here, and links to the other posts on the same topic are all in the comments section below.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education report defines participation in this way: “Participation centers on an individual’s roles and responsibilities in community, society, and the world; it takes various forms, including communication, sharing, and use of knowledge and information in all spheres of life – political, economic, and social” (pg. 37).  The authors continue by  more narrowly defining participation in the context of this conversation regarding online activities as three-pronged: access to communities, standards of behavior, and proactive participation.  This is in contrast to offline participation, which often requires certain resources or skills or attributes that young people often do not have.  This is to say that young people have the ability to participate online in a way that is rarely accessible to them offline.

The authors list extensive benefits, or promises, of online participation:

  • access
  • acquisition of skills
  • sense of empowerment or efficacy
  • exposure to diverse view points
  • diversity of ideas
  • information sharing
  • citizen journalism
  • civic engagement
  • democratic participation

This is quite an impressive list of potential benefits from online engagement!  It is also, frankly, a high bar to set.  Before reading further in the report I took a break here to contemplate the reality of whether these lofty goals were being met.  And while I suppose that they might be in some ways and in some places, it is not a ubiquitous assumption that can be made of any one’s online participation – regardless of their age.

Indeed, the authors’ list of potential issues with participation addressed this concern.  First, they listed an inherent difference in participation based on access and the potential for negative engagement rather than positive engagement as potential issues, but then they did go on to describe a simple lack of interest and decision to take advantage of social media’s participatory benefits as the primary risk in this category.

The authors go on to suggest that, as with the other topics they bring up, in order to support young people in taking full advantage of the benefits of online participation, but keep them from the pitfalls, education and communication are paramount.


The authors are essentially right, although the suggestion to “Go, and educate!” doesn’t necessarily help parents with the specifics of how to follow that directive.  I suspect, though, that the authors don’t follow-up with specifics because it is just so hard to be specific.  Teaching young people how to benefit from, but not get trapped in, online participation is hard to do – otherwise we’d all have done it by now.

Continued conversations are really the key to educating young people about these somewhat subtle issues, including participation.  I will go into more depth about how exactly to approach education in my wrap-up post tomorrow.