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Everyday Ethics

Do Boundaries Vanish Online?

Does the ubiquity and instant nature of these technologies make it difficult for people to judge the consequences of their actions? Or does the false sense of anonymity provided by staying behind a screen make it easy for people to say and do things they would never do in a face-to-face context?

The tragic suicide of a Rutgers student whose private life was broadcast over the Web once again raises important ethical questions about boundaries.

 

Does the ubiquity and instant nature of these technologies make it difficult for people to judge the consequences of their actions? Or does the false sense of anonymity provided by staying behind a screen make it easy for people to say and do things they would never do in a face-to-face context?

 

Was this an unthinking prank? Were they more aware of the spectacle of broadcasting a private scene than the anguish their lack of empathy would cause? Did the two students who broadcast the information have trouble distinguishing what is public and private information? Was this online bullying motivated by homophobia? They were all from the same high school and it is not clear what led the two students to broadcast and Twitter about Clementi.

Does the fact that death was the consequence of this invasion of privacy alter how we perceive the actions of the two students?

 

Teasing, bullying and spreading damaging gossip have been intransigent issues for schools.  However, the ability to do so online with photos and videos changes the scope of the issue.  The Internet now makes it possible for the whole world to access such information. There was a time when a person could go to 'a new world' where no one knew who you were and start life with a relatively clean slate. Today, anyone could Google and find information about you; there is no forgetting or escaping in this digital age. 

 

So, how can we train ourselves to be more alert to consequences of our actions online?