ICT Ethics – finding new equilibria profession by profession

Ethical ICT in Youth Work (c) Tim Davies 2010
Ethical ICT in Youth Work (c) Tim Davies 2010

[Summary: Ethics belongs to professions, not problems & an ethical framework for youth and ICTs will require each workforce to seek new equilibria based on a number of inter-related elements]

I spend a very interesting day yesterday at a workshop organised by DC10Plus exploring the possible creation of an ‘ethical framework for ICT and young people’. This post contains a set of reflections and ‘thinking aloud’ following that session…

With technologies and the dynamics of digital environments constantly developing, ethical frameworks, over and above guidance and best-practice, are very much needed to help all those involved in work with young people (and young people themselves) to think critically about the ways technologies are used in, and impact upon, the lives of children and young people. However, when it comes to practical ethics for the public sector, it’s crucial to remember that ethics belong to professions, not problems.

That was a point brought home to me the Connected Practice symposium in September last year, where it was clear that different professional groups approached their work from very different motivations and with very different practical and ethical frameworks. Whilst some would argue the rise of a network society leads to a dissolution of barriers between professionals, and consequently, the dissolution of clear and distinct forms of professional practice, right now we are in an environment of inter-disciplinary practice, rather than post-disciplinary practice  – and there are real advantages to be found in each different professional group working out it’s own ethical responses to ICT. A ‘meta-ethical’ public sector framework of general ethical principles may support a degree of compatibility and interface between different professional ethical approaches to ICT, but should not try to replace the process of each profession working out it’s ICT ethics in it’s own context. For a real practice example of how professional context affects the sorts of ethical and practical implications of using ICT – take a look at this forum thread over on Youth Work Online – where the differences between the nature of practice and relationship with young people and youth workers in statutory and voluntary sector youth work settings is leading to a need to adapt and think critically about guidance on how youth workers should use social networking sites.

The point that ethics belong to professions, not problems also highlights that ICT ethics should start, not from concerns about ICTs per-se, but from a recognition of how ICTs impact upon and cut across the concerns of different professional groups within the public sector. And any approach to ethics for ICTs & Young People should have a clear account of where and why a specific focus on young people is warranted. In Safe and Effective Social Network Site Applications for Young People (p. 7) I’ve argued that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Law, and neuro-scientific understandings of adolescence are critical to any such account.

Finding a new equilibrium

Professional ethics guide how individuals and organisations with a set of specific goals should behave in the pursuit of those goals, given the particular contexts in which they work. It might be thought that professional groups can just look at their existing ethical codes and apply them directly to the Internet. However, in my experience exploring youth work values and ethics that turns out not to be quite so straightforward. Whilst it is possible (as we do on p.g. 17 & 18 of the Youth Work & Social Networking Report) to explore how the values of a profession play out in a digital world – deriving practical and ethical guidance for real world situations is not just a case of looking at values and the realities of the online world, but involves finding an equilibria between at least six different elements, as the diagram above shows. Each element is both a variable that may be open to change, but equally a constraint on working out an ethical position:

  • Young people’s use of social media/ICT/the Internet – ethics cannot be built for the ‘ideal world’, but must be developed for the world we are in. At the same time, ethical approaches may involve challenging current patterns of ICT use and seeking to encourage young people to approach ICTs in different ways.
  • Professional values and skills – professional values in many service start from an analysis of the world and a desire to change something in it – be that a desire to tip the balance of power in favour of young people in core youth work theory, or a desire to reduce crime and increase social control in the basic analysis of law enforcement services. However, ICTs are implicated in ongoing changes to the world – and so professional values need to be re-examined in light of the digital world – without being abandoned.
  • Models of online communication and collaboration – there are many different ways of working online. Only some should be seen as ‘youth work’ ways of working – and the choice over which ways of working are ruled in, and ruled out, of a youth work framework of ethics for ICT use will impact upon the nature of that framework. The choice of ethics will also determine which forms of online communication and collaboration are (a) open to youth workers, and (b) likely to be open to youth workers in ways that allow them to be effectively used.
  • Features of available / popular social media tools – this is a particularly interesting ‘variable’ – as to an extent, for most professionals, the tools available to use are not seen as something over which they have much control. Facebook works the way it does. Changing that is not in the power of the individual practitioner. However, the plug-in and application architectures of many social media spaces mean that it may be possible for them to be adapted to be made ‘safer spaces’ for youth work practice, or more appropriate settings for the forms of practice a worker wants to explore. Right now, reshaping social media spaces is beyond the means of most practitioners – but if made more accessible, could enhance the possibility of ‘ethical and effective’ online practice.
  • Institutional drivers of, and barriers to, online working. See the 50 Barriers wiki on this one.
  • Consideration of opportunities and risks – based on real evidence about the opportunities and risks young people face online.

I recognise that this is still a fairly sketchy model – and my use of language above is neither as clear, nor as precise, as would be ideal. However, I wanted to share this now both for the Ethical ICT & Youth project, and as part of ongoing thinking for another project which I hope to be blogging more about soon…

What would you ask Tanya Byron?

Update 9th Feb: I took some of the questions suggested below, along with a range of others, to an Interview with Dr Byron last week – and the webcast of that interview is now available through the Young People in a Digital World conference website.

On Saturday, on behalf of WISE KIDS, I’m going to be interviewing Tanya Byron, author of the ‘Safer Children in a Digital World’ report (known as the Byron review), for a video keynote to be shown at the WISE KIDS – WISP (Wales Internet Safety Partnership) conference in Swansea taking place on the 1st of February.

With the recent launch by the UK Council on Child Internet Safety (created as a result of one of Tanya’s recommendations in the report) of the Click Clever, Click Safe strategy, it should be a good opportunity to find out how far the insights of the Byron Review have been taken into account in policy making, and what more practitioners thinking about the opportunities and risks to young people online should be focussed on.

But as well as capturing some of Tanya’s insights on policy and practice around online safety, all the conference team are keen to make sure we’re also getting Tanya’s insights on the questions that practitioners have.

So – what should I be asking in the interview?

I need to put together question ideas by 4pm Friday (22nd Jan 2010), so all quick thoughts welcome as comments, or tweeted on the #ypdw2010 hash-tag.

I’ll ask as many questions as I can, and responses will be shown at the Swansea conference, and we hope, through a new online Digital Youth Wales ning network to be launched very soon…

Skills for public voice & participation alongside skills for social media

Eszter Hargittai was in the Oxford Internet Institute earlier today sharing her research findings on the role of skills and socio-demographic factors in influencing levels of use of the Internet – and particularly web 2.0 spaces.

Implicit in Eszter’s argument was a relationship between the diversity of Web 2.0 use and democratisation. The presentation highlighted how socio-demographic factors, and particularly gender, can have an impact on the extent to which different groups contribute to public online spaces such as YouTube and Wikipedia. It’s not enough to give access to the web, and to web 2.0 for the imbalances in who is speaking and expressing their views through these online platforms to be challenged. Skills matter in addressing the imbalance.

However, as discussion at the presentation explored, if our concerns are of democratisation, social justice and equality, then the the skills that need to be promoted are far wider than technology skills, or skills to work with social media.

Skills to exercise public voice and to participate in community (online and offline) are arguably prior to the skills to use technology for public expression.

Both as we measure engagement online, and as we work to promote online engagement – keeping in mind a focus not only on digital skills, but also on general skills of public expression, interaction and dialogue is key.

For those working with young people and communities then that perhaps adds up to encouragement to address digital skills as part of wider civic skill-building programmes such as ‘Act by Right (now online as a free resource BTW)’ rather than to address digital skills and social media in isolation.

Hanging out, Messing around, Geeking out – connecting the dots

I’ve just been watching this interview by Howard Rheingold with Mimi Ito. Ito was one of the lead researchers on the MacArthur Digital Youth project which published it’s findings in book form at the end of last year, and has a wealth of insights into the different ways American, and Japanese, teenagers engage with the Internet and mobile phones. In the interview (embedded at the bottom of this post) Ito outlines the different ways in which young people engage – using the: ‘Hanging out’, ‘Messing about’ and ‘Geeking out’ framework that the Digital Youth Project developed.

Hanging Out, Messing About, Geeking OutThe framework offered gets us beyond talk of ‘digital natives’ to an understanding that there are many different patterns and levels of youth engagement with the Internet. Young people’s uses range from a majority predominantly using the Internet to keep in touch with friends or for accessing entertainment content – chilling and killing time, rather than seeking opportunities to engage (the hanging out group) – through to a smaller group who are using the Internet to explore existing interests and new interests, experimenting with creating content or engaging in community online in a fairly light way (the messing about group) – and those who are using the Internet to really go deep into their interests, creating content, participating in communities and more (the geeking out group).

Awareness, Use, OutreachI was struck by how the framework of ‘hanging out, messing about, geeking out’ (and thinking about the relative numbers of young people at each layer of the model) fits with the framework I’ve been using in training with youth services around levels of professional engagement with social media. We’ve been talking about three levels in which youth services can engagement with social media:

  • Awareness – all staff need to be aware of how social media affects young people’s lives – and to understand that young people’s lives play out in both online and offline environments. Staff need to be able to identify risks and respond to them; to be sensitive to the role of the Internet and social media when supporting young people’s personal and social development; and to be able to identify and encourage young people to explore positive online opportunities.
  • Use – some staff should have the skills to use social media and other online services as youth work tools – whether to promote, extend or enhance face-to-face work; to equip young people with critical skills in making greater use of social media; or for promoting young people’s participation in projects. There are a wide range of different ‘use’ roles – and no single member of staff will be suited to them all. Use of social media in youth work builds upon existing practice and starts from established activities or groups.
  • Outreach – some services will want to consider creating new models of online working – reaching out to new groups of young people and providing online-only support and projects, or projects that start online, before leading to face-to-face and blended work.

(Drawn from the Youth Work & Social Networking Project final report (PDF), Davies & Cranston, 2008)

Awareness of social media for all workers ensures that youth services can provide support to the young people ‘hanging out’ online. The use of social media as a youth work tool either helps some of those ‘hanging out’ to move to stages of ‘messing about’ and exploring the possibilities of the Internet in more depth, or encourages young people to ‘geek out’ and get involved in-depth in an issue (and not necessarily a ‘geeky’ issue…).

When it comes to promoting the safety of young people online – we can reasonably expect that having a supportive youth work presence in young people’s exploration of the web as a space for messing about/exploring interests, or geeking out, and getting in-depth into an activity – can help young people to develop the critical skills to interact safely when they are exploring the web without youth work presence.

Combining these two frameworks also helps make sense of digital youth work in another practical way. Whenever planning a project, and thinking about whether it’s focus is on ‘awareness’, ‘use’ or ‘outreach’ – think as well about the young people you are trying to reach. Are they young people whose experience of the web is a place to ‘hang out’ only? Do you need to both show that the issue you’re trying to work on is important and that the Internet can be used for group-work, collaboration, campaigning and other community/civic tasks? Or are you trying to attract the attention of groups who are already ‘geeking out’ on other issues they already care about? In that case – you’ll need to really show how your project could use their existing skills, and could be fun/worthwhile/etc.

The interview

Two opportunities to explore social media & work with young people

[Summary: Two day course, and six-month action learning set on social media in youth work and youth participation]

Getting started with digital youth work, or with using digital tools in youth participation, can seem daunting to many. It’s not enough to just talk about how digital skills are essential assets needed in the youth-serving workforce, or to point to tools and approaches that professionals should be using. Training opportunities, capacity building, and ongoing action learning to inform that training are all needed. Which is why I’m really pleased that 2010 will see the return of two key opportunities.

1) Social Media and Youth Participation Action Learning Set

Building on the Action Learning Set I co-facilitated last year, this six-month (one meeting a month) action learning supports participants who are working to increase their own organizations engagement with social media. Through expert inputs, workshops and shared action learning projects with peers – the action learning set aims to develop the skills of individuals, and the capacity of organizations, to engage with social media in youth participation.

Last year’s set resulted in a printed and online guide; and supported a wide range of local projects – ranging from those focussing on social media and youth engagement around commissioning, to projects supporting the use of social networks to engage young people in care in decision making.

You can find out more about this year’s action learning set (first session taking place at the end of January) and details of how to book in this flyer: Social Media and Youth Participation Action Learning Set

2) Two-day training for Youth Work Professionals

After a successful pilot, Katie Bacon will be leading a number of two-day trainings in 2010, on ‘Social Media for Youth Work Professionals’. Katie & I have developed the course together, and initially we’ll be running a number of sessions in partnership with LECP Training.

This two-day training is designed to support youth professionals from a wide range of backgrounds to develop their understanding of social media and how to use it as a tool in their work. Including hands-on activities to learn to use different social media tools – it’s a practical training that grounds the use of social media tools in professional values and practices.

You can read about the pilot training day in this reflective blog post from trainer Katie Bacon, and keep an eye on the LECP Training network for details of when the public course dates are announced (join the network to get training alerts).

We’re also exploring how this training might be offered as in-service training in individual local authorities, or offered on a regional basis – so if you might be interested in having Katie and/or I come to train with your service/region, then do get in touch.

I’m also hopeful that 2010 will bring the completion of a couple more digital youth work resources I’ve been working on. More on that some other time…