Legal and Ethical Contexts in my Digital Practice.

Recently, one of my year 13 students wrote an argument on the merits of anonymity on the web. Initially, I thought it was a naïve idea to think that you could achieve true anonymity when our dealings on the web leave a digital footprint’; however, it was I who was naïve, as it is ‘easy to achieve a high level of anonymity or pseudonymity’, which is indeed difficult to trace (MOE, 2015). This caused me pause for thought. We know that people make hateful and morally reprehensible comments because they feel that anonymity gives them immunity to the consequences. Some don’t even feel the need to hide behind a pseudonym – the lack of face-to face interaction is enough for them to behave with impunity, and they have a variety of digital tools they can use.


Yet my student articulated the merits of anonymity, some of which are echoed by Andrew Lewman, in an article in the Guardian newspaper where he said that being anonymous on the web is ‘increasingly important’ as it gives people ‘control’ allowing them to be ‘creative’ and figure out their ‘identity and explore what they want to do’ without it being ‘tied to their real name for perpetuity’ (Krotoski, 2012). This does seem a compelling argument in the face of the growing trend for employers to search potential employee social media tracks in lieu of references. (I’m sure there’s an ethical dilemma in that too). Conversely, in the same article, Krotoski argues that the new trend is for ‘authentic identity’ as people want to know and trust who they are communicating with. So, if we are to reduce anti-social behaviour and nurture trust, at the same time as creativity, we need to teach our students how to use digital technology responsibly. We need to teach digital citizenship.


The Code of Ethics for Certificated Teachers states that ‘families and whanau and the wider community trust us to guide their children and young people on their learning journey and keep them safe’. It also says, ‘upholding the expectations set out in the code is the responsibility of each, and every one of us’. Digital literacy is a component of our curriculum and with it digital citizenship.

What are we to do all things considered? (Hall, 2001). If we want our students to feel empowered and safe, we need to give them the knowledge and tools to help themselves. We can teach them about cyber risk and help build their resiliency by allowing them to ‘merge their prior knowledge with technical skill’ and develop strategies. We also need to actively promote ‘pro-social behaviours’ to break down the ‘school community’s bystander culture’ (MOE, 2015) Each of us has a moral responsibility to do this.

How? Some suggestions include creating, ‘Acceptable Use Agreements & Consent Forms which are revisited throughout the year’, (MOE, 2015). Consent forms are easily forgotten and I would argue that it adds an unnecessary administrative burden if it is to be ‘regularly revisited throughout the year’.  Another suggestion is that we could implement digital citizenship as part of the curriculum and include students, parents and whanau in the discussion. This is a far more engaging idea and one that can be sustained, especially if it is supported by teacher collaboration and good quality Professional Development. We are implementing Digital Literacy as part of our junior curriculum from next year. Having dedicated teachers to deliver this will help the rest of us to do our bit in the classroom; but we must do our bit.

Unlike my student, I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of hiding behind a mask of anonymity, but then, I haven’t been brought up in an environment where it is easy to do that. I see it as a dilemma, he doesn’t. As a teacher, I need to respect his viewpoint and find a way of helping him to be a safe and responsible digital citizen.

By Tracy Simpson

Sources:  Aleks Krotoski, April 2012.

MOE Netsafe 2015

Education Council. (n.d). The Education Council Code of Ethics for Certificated Teachers. Retrieved from…

Hall, A. (2001). What ought I to do, all things considered? An approach to the exploration of ethical problems by teachers. Paper presented at the IIPE Conference, Brisbane. Retrieved from

creative common attribution licence


2 thoughts on “Legal and Ethical Contexts in my Digital Practice.

Add yours

  1. I agree with you that anonymity sits uncomfortably as a position on the internet, a place for people to hide behind and say things that they do not have to be accountable for. It has led to trolling, bullying behaviour and can ultimately lead students feeling unsafe as a result of interactions on the web. It is concerning to see a number of trends that link cellphones and their use to negative consequences such as a lack of connection, loneliness and depression – are we on the brink of a mental health crisis with youth? I enjoyed reading this article as a perspective on phones and their effect on youth.

    However, I can see a couple of contexts where it would be good to be have anonymity. We can promote anonymity in situations that may include uncomfortable conversations where we want people to feel they can be honest without ridicule. I am thinking of sexual education, health conversations, and sharing risky behaviours, where we want to gather an authentic voice from students without them feeling ashamed of sharing opinions and experiences.I agree that the right types of behaviours need to be modeled and students need to understand what it is to be a good citizen in the wild west of the web!

    When it comes to ethical behaviour and anonymity is it horses for courses? We need to help show our students when it is appropriate.


  2. Hi Tracy,

    I enjoyed your thought provoking article. As a Health Education teacher, the focus of a major part of the curriculum is on wellbeing. The students own wellbeing, those around them and society in general. As is obvious to parents and teachers alike, teenagers focus on their interpersonal relationships especially their friends. The digital age has made it increasingly easy to be in touch (the touch of a button) 24/7. The question you pose about the advantages of anonymity creates reservations with me.

    It is this perceived depersonalized state that permits many teenagers to send messages which are harmful to their recipient. The trade-off between anonymity and integrity is more likely to occur in this state. The integrity and ethical behavior that your Netsafe insert proposes may be diminished by the depersonalized mindset of the teen. Teenagers are more likely to send sensitive information than they would if it was a face to face communication (States News Service. (Mar. 5, 2013). The delivery of more sensitive information (written & visual) can result in more intimate sharing and also the potential for the negative effects of cyber-bullying. The fall-out of these negative consequences have led to a significant rise in anxiety levels in our teenagers. High levels of anxiety and the advent of cyberbullying have been shown to contribute to suicidal tendencies. New Zealand has the highest rate of teenage suicide in the world (Stuff,2016). Teenagers who may have poor impulse control together with the immediacy of the digital communication can on reflection regret the message they have sent without having the capacity to take back their communication. The effects of that message can damage the recipients self esteem (anonymous or not).

    Another aspect of the perceived anonymity of digital communication is the “friend” concept. Where a “like” response is sometimes the basis for an on-line relationship. If the self-esteem of the teenager is reliant on these so called “friends” and their approval (likes), they are placing themselves in a fragile state.

    I believe there is a role for education to diminish these negative outcomes in the new techno centric environment teenagers live in.

    Thanks Tracy, for the food for thought

    States News Service. (Mar. 5, 2013):

    Stuff, (2016).


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