There’s been a lot said in the past year about Slacktivism—that portmanteau of the words “slacker” and “activism” that has become a derogatory term for click-and-give philanthropy. But now, a new MacArthur-funded study says many young people, when online, simply don’t act very morally or ethically and need to be mentored by the social good community to play more generously (and civically) with others.

“While social media offer youth new powers, (young people) need to learn to use those powers more responsibly for good,” Carrie James, the research director and principal investigator at Harvard University’s Project Zero told a recent Mashable conference in New York. “Right now, our findings show that youth tend to consider their own interests above all when they’re online and ignore the reality that online, they are participants in large public communities. If youth are to leverage new media for civic participation, they will need to start seeing online life as consequential and meaningful—and not simply as a joke, for fun or something that helps them pursue only their individual interests.”

James shared these new findings from her team’s current research:

  • Young people tend not to think that they have a responsibility towards others when they are online. James said that one young woman she interviewed told the Project Zero team the following: “I do online what I want to do online. I don’t really feel like it’s anybody’s business to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do. I don’t really feel responsible to people online. I definitely feel like it’s more for me and not for anyone else.” James said she and her team found this attitude to be “a bit unsettling, at the very least.”
  • Young people don’t care much about what impact their online choices have on others, including on the feelings of others and on social justice and fairness. “One of the most significant properties of new media is that they allow for interactions with groups of people beyond our known circles,” James said. “I think the level of moral thinking among the youth we studied is not sufficient for participation in these new spaces. ... (Young people online) seem to ignore the reality that online, they are participants in larger communities.”
  • Ethical thinking is scarce among online youth. “There is very little capacity (on the part of the youth studied) to think in the abstract” about what their actions—such as downloading music illegally, for example—might have on others, such as the musicians who created the music or on the music business that is trying to sell it. “This is the rarest way of thinking that we found about online life in our study,” James said. “It’s a mindset devoid of ethical considerations.”
  • There is a prevailing view that online life is just for fun, and cannot be influenced. One young person told James: “Most of the time when people see something online, their main reaction is to laugh because most of the stuff on the Internet you have no sway over at all, so you just laugh and move on.” James said this comment reflects two sentiments that her team found to be common among the young people they were studying. “One sentiment is that the Net is just for fun,” James said, “and the other is that people feel they can’t change things they find to be unsettling online.” The irony? “Despite the great powers that social media give young people, these powers can often go unacknowledged.”
  • There is an absence of moral and ethical supports for online life. “While many youth can name an adult mentor or role model, James says, very few youth in the Project Zero study said there was an adult present in their online decision-making. Among older youth, aged 15-25, she said, adults were “virtually absent.” In her study of Tweens, adults were more present but their conversations with Tweens tended to focus mostly on Internet safety rather than on online ethics and citizenship.

To be sure, the picture is not entirely bleak, James says. Groups like, the More Than Me Foundation “do a great job of involving youth in social good projects.” But for the most part, James added, the nonprofit sector “represents an untapped opportunity to leverage social media for social good” among young people.

What do you think? Do nonprofits do enough to involve young people in social causes through the use of social media? Should they do more? How much differently might adults act online compared with the youth surveyed by James’ team?