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Ethics 101: 5 Online Pitfalls That Destroy Students

Kids have always loved to mix it up with a little school-time tomfoolery, whether it's streaking at a football game or leaving a flaming bag of poop on a teacher's doorstep. But in the digital age, the mischief has moved online. What may seem like harmless virtual-reality hijinks can have devastating real-world consequences. Switched consulted sociologist Carrie James of Harvard's GoodPlay Project, who recently conducted a study that examined the online behaviors of and dilemmas confronted by 60 kids aged 15 to 25. With her help, we've come up with the top five online ethical pitfalls that can ensnare today's students (and plenty of adults, too). If you're in school, ignore them at your own peril. And if you're the parent of a pupil, read on and remember with fondness the simpler, olden days.

1. Illegal Downloading

The dilemma:
You just gotta get that song, that TV show, that movie, whatever -- but you don't want to dip into your hard-earned beer fund.

The pitfall: You could hit Pandora for a quick listen, or Hulu for a free watch, but there's nothing like an all-expenses-paid trip to Torrentland, where you can guzzle down a few gigs and share your collection of rare Muppets records with like-minded enthusiasts. "There's a sense by many kids that they're little fish in a big sea and so won't get caught," says James, citing the findings of her study. "Despite the fact that it's illegal, it's what youth culture endorses."

The penalty: Well, kiddo, hate to break it to you, but any time you take a product without paying for it, you're stealing. It doesn't matter what philosophical argument you make, either, as the law has recently come down squarely on the side of content owners. Just ask the woman who has to pay $1.9 million for downloading just 24 songs. Or the gods of file-sharing themselves, the Pirate Bay guys, who were sentenced to a year in the pokey and a $3.54 million fine. The next time the siren call of free tunes beckons, remember that you could quite easily end up in massive, crippling debt for life.

2. Borrowing Work

The dilemma: The clock is ticking and your research paper on 19th-century Welsh farming techniques is nearly due, but you just don't feel like buckling down for an all-nighter.

The pitfall: Sites like Cramster and Course Hero are the modern equivalents of term-paper services that once were advertised in the back of magazines. Which is to say they're an updated form of cheating. And we don't have to point out that cutting and pasting from Wikipedia is problematic both because it's so error-ridden, and because you're taking others' ideas and claiming them as your own. "Plagiarism is a huge problem. No one [in the study] admitted to us that they had done it," James says. "But other studies [show] that plagiarism and cheating is on the rise. Very few, if any, students talk about the importance of credit for the original writer of materials."

The penalty: The irony of the digital age is that just as it has become incredibly easy to cheat, it has become even easier to detect. Teachers these days have a pretty effective arsenal of tools at their disposal for detecting plagiarism -- from online services, to downloadable software that scans the Web, to perusing those cheating sites themselves. In high school, plagiarism usually gets you an F for the class, and, in college, you can get the boot after just the first offense.

3. Dissing a Teacher Online

The dilemma: Some teachers are not only soul-crushingly boring, but needlessly harsh graders. And, well, they're jerks to boot. It is your personal mission to save future students from your fate.

The pitfall:
The temptation to slam a teacher is met by a digital word that has made it incredibly easy to sound off on social networking sites and even dedicated teacher-rating services. In one of James's studies, she noted, "There were always a handful of students who felt like the Internet is a different place and you can do whatever you want -- that's what it's for and if people don't like it, they just have to deal." The funny thing about public outbursts, though, is that they're public. And with the Internet, they're not only spread around the world in an instant, but they'll also likely exist forever. Couple that with the fact that Internet anonymity is really a myth, and suddenly your little Facebook crack about Mr. Harrison's hairy crack can have devastating consequences.

The penalty:
If you're lucky, your jibe about a teacher might just end with an embarrassing public apology and the torture of having to look the teacher in the eye every day after that. If you're unlucky, you could end up in court fighting off a libel case: Like the couple sued by a dentist over a negative Yelp review, or the blogger who was publicly identified by Google after calling an acquaintance a "skank." Either way, it isn't pretty. If you must comment online, be fair, be truthful, and don't get personal.

4. Posting Inappropriate Content

The dilemma
: Sometimes, your idea of having fun means doing things that are against the rules. Like when you drunk-Sharpied your roommate, or rode your BMX bike naked through the Home Depot parking lot. Naturally, you have to record these things for posterity's sake and share them with interested parties (i.e., the entire world).

The pitfall:
The funny thing about the Internet, as we've said a million times before, is that it's instant, it's everywhere, and it's eternal. "I think it's one of the most common issues that students face," says James, "and a surprising number do nothing to adjust their privacy settings -- or change their behavior." So that photo of you puking off a balcony that you posted to Facebook is just a few mouse-clicks away from being a featured Digg photo and being enjoyed by millions across the globe, including your peers, teachers, newscasters, potential bosses, and romantic partners. You see where this is going?

The penalty: Expulsion. Suspension. Arrest. Irreparably damaged relationships. We don't have enough space to list all of the damage done by careless postings, but to name a couple recent ones: those hilariously homoerotic State Department guards, and these suspended doctors and nurses.

5. Using Your Phone in Class

The dilemma: Something just popped into your noggin so deeply, hilariously, awesomely interesting that it must be communicated to a friend. Now. Only, you're in chemistry class.

The pitfall:
"Internet-enabled portable devices and mobile phones are always in the classroom and kids have very savvy ways of hiding them under their desks," James says. Sure, we'll grant that blind-texting is an admirable feat, as is learning how to breach the school's firewall to let IMs and Facebook through. But, unless you're passing along the cure to cancer, we're pretty sure your deep thoughts can wait till after class.

The penalty:
The debate in schools over kids' right to possess cell phones still rages on, but it's kind of beside the point. Get caught texting or, worse, taking a call, and you're either going to lose your phone, get detention, be suspended, or -- at the very least -- get an ass-chewing. From a more practical side, you'll also get lower grades. So go ahead, send that ROFL text now, and look forward to a future manning the deep fryer.

Illustrations by Camille Altay.

Tags: crime, ethics, features, law, students, top



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