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…

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