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Has Social Media Demoralized Our Next Generation?


“Everyone online lives somewhere.” – Chris Tolles, CEO, Topix

Has social media done more harm than good for everyone who’s “grown up digital?” It’s a fair question to ask, and one that deserves an expert explaining it. I interviewed a professional ethicist, Dr. Steven Mintz of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Dr. Mintz shared with me why he believes social media has led to a moral crisis with our younger generation; and how that must be turned around in the classroom, through parenting, and in our community – before Social Media becomes our social massacre.

Because this is a lengthy interview, I’ve included a summary for those who are time-constrained or just want to get to the ‘meat’.

According to Dr. Mintz:

  • Millennials today – aka, teens, GenY’s, digital natives, tweens/teens/young adults, etcetera – are having to deal with “ethical relativism” perhaps more than any previous generation. (Ethical relativism can be described as the belief that nothing is objectively right or wrong; it depends on the prevailing view of a particular individual, culture, or historical period.)
  • Ethical relativism grows from a lack of civility in society. Today it is largely caused by the overexposure to gratuitous media and content online, the ability to be anonymous, the lack of positive role models in society, the mixed messages that mass media and business give off constantly (including rewarding greed over whistleblowers); and the lack of commitment to education on ethics in the classroom.
  • Ethical relativism is especially appealing and even highly addictive to both millennials and older generations. It gives us an empowered feeling of generating attention for ourselves when we want it (albeit not how we might envision it). The feeling of anonymity provided to us via social media allows us to avoid both personal responsibility and public scrutiny for our actions. For example, it makes us feel like we can get away with whatever we want.
  • This ethical relativism has created a sense of apathy toward others’ well being in society, a sense of moral exclusion or lack of mindfulness from those who they don’t consider to be their peers. We are now more de-sensitized to what actions would be considered shocking or very harmful to others outside of our immediate social circles, even when it confronts in person.
  • Ethical relativism’s damage to our society includes mass scale cyber-bullying, disrespect for other’s privacy, and moral detachment from others whom we don’t have a personal affinity towards.
  • The solution to diminish ethical relativism must include a serious commitment to teaching ethics, ethical values and ethical programs in the classroom. It needs to be provided by mentors who have a proper understanding of its context within the rapidly evolving social media ecosystem.

Grant: What do you find to be major challenges with instilling a strong sense of ethics in Millennials?

Steven: Teens today are not adequately educated on the importance of developing a set of core ethical values to guide them throughout life; so when they encounter ethical conflict, they lack the foundation to deal with such dilemmas. They learn that ethics is whatever they want, an ethical relativism mentality. A common attitude is ‘my ethics are my ethics, and yours are yours.’

So why is ethical relativism wrong?

A society cannot function in a highly productive way without a commonly accepted set of values. Once a young person decides to go along with wrongdoing, he or she begins to slide down the proverbial “ethical slippery slope” and it is difficult to turn around and head for the high road if, all of a sudden, a person ‘grows a conscience.’

What could be a pervasive example of ethical relativism?

Take the example of honesty.  With ethical relativism, honesty is reduced to saying whatever you want; and withholding information as it suits you, rather than to be forthcoming and transparent, and to fully disclose all of information that another party has a right to know.

What do you attribute this ethical relativism in Millennials to?

We have a lack of positive role models in society whether business, politics, or entertainment. What are young people to make of Lance Armstrong who was one of the most respected athletes and people in the world and now is disgraced? What is the message to young people? I think it is you haven’t done anything wrong until and unless you are caught.

There is no positive sense of ethics – a way to guide us through the tough times during our life. These are values we aspire to and want others to treat us with, such as trustworthiness, reliability, accountability, and treating others with respect and fair-mindedness.

How do mass media and social media play a big part in creating this ethical relativism to Millennials?

At an early age, young people are exposed to online sites that provide negative images of how to behave, such as might be found on YouTube; off-colored and discriminatory language that result from the rantings of those who choose to use social media to present their personal views; and Internet sites that provide information destructive to a civilized society. For example, you can find page after page of information on ‘how to make a bomb.’

On a more basic level, young people see others do stupid things in society and wind up with a reality TV show and the fame that comes with it. Just think of America’s most notorious gatecrashers, Michaele and Tareq Salahi, who crashed a White House state dinner party and wound up on a reality TV show – The Real Housewives of DC. The bottom line is all too many people fail to take personal responsibility for their postings and what they say and do.

What about your own field of expertise, ethics in business? How do you think these influences negatively affect Millennials when they enter the workplace?

Even if Millennials are ethical where they work – or try to be – they are faced with pressures to cut corners, manipulate the numbers and hold back relevant information, all of which lead to cover-ups.

If you think about the economic crisis in the U.S. that began in 2007-2008, much of it can be blamed on a lack of ethical behavior in business, the engine of capitalism in a free society. The accounting frauds at Enron and WorldCom at the turn of the century, the financial meltdown of 2007-8, and Ponzi schemers like Bernie Madoff together cost our society hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wealth and increased regulatory costs. Students graduate and begin their work careers in this environment.

So with all of these factors contributing to ethical relativism in Millennials, what do you determine to be the underlining core problem?

The problem is a lack of civility in society. The dilemma is that just what is and is not civil behavior tends to be in the eyes of the beholder. I like to think of civil behavior in four ways:

1)      Having good manners

2)      Not being rude to others

3)      Showing respect for others and

4)      Tolerating differences whether they are reli
gion-based, nationality, sexual orientation, or political viewpoints.

As a society I think we all-too-often fail to act in a civil manner towards others because we lack a sense of caring about others’ well being; we don’t empathize with others; and we self-define fairness rather than follow established societal norms.

What do you find the challenges to be in the classroom/schools with teaching and instilling a sense of ethics in students?

I would say it comes down to these four things:

1)      A desire to learn for learning sake – a quest for knowledge and to become contributing members of society. Teaching is more of a challenge than ever before because of the divergent views of young people about how to behave in the classroom and a lack of personal responsibility.

2)      Lack of a work ethic – all too many students choose the easier way out: to work as little as possible, and they still expect to be graded highly by their teachers. This is an extension of the entitlement society that has become endemic to our way of life. I’d go one step further and say young people lack the basic skills to even know how to work hard, put in long hours, and struggle with problems until reaching a satisfactory conclusion. The sense of accomplishment and self-worth that hard work brings is lost and carries forward into future endeavors. Too many young people look for the easy way out rather than dedicate themselves to a craft; find a way to better society. I like to think of my mantra, which is to leave society in a better place than when I found it.

3)      Lack of critical thinking skills and analytical reasoning abilities – students have difficulty dealing with new and unstructured problems similar to the ones they will encounter once they get out into the real world. They are exposed to rote learning that doesn’t help when a new problem develops. They don’t know how to break down a problem into smaller, easier to deal with parts to enable developing a workable strategy to successfully deal with conflict situations. In many respects it is a lack of common sense, blind adherence to ethical relativism, and poor ethical reasoning skills.

4)      Civility and respect for teachers in the classroom – students looking to satisfy their own self-interests first and not those of the group. Their bad behavior becomes infectious and harms classroom discipline. Civil behavior has fallen by the wayside. Part of the problem is young people are not taught basic ethics, to be respectful of others even if they don’t share their views, and they don’t learn about historically accepted ways to behave in society that should be part of the American experience.

Online video is extremely popular with Millennials, both for creating and sharing in their social circles; and often the goal of ‘going viral’ is seen as a necessary end to any means. A lot of what is ‘viral video’ has rewarded unethical behavior by giving the perpetrators attention and fame, which is often what most Millennials may crave. Shows like Tosh.0 are a good example of rewarding this kind of bad behavior. How do you think that online video contributes to ethics problems, including the decline of civility in our society?

This goes back to what I said earlier about Millennials lacking positive role models in society. They see their ‘heroes’ acting in an immature way and even self-destructive manner on YouTube or other social media channels, or on their own blogs. Young people are very impressionable. They are exposed to violence in the streets, on school busses, and in the classroom at a young age from video postings. They see young people being bullied because they are different or just because some group chooses to pick on another group. Almost daily young people start to become de-sensitized to bad behavior and violent acts. Behavior that would have been considered taboo years ago, such as girl-on-girl fighting is now part of the norm. Moreover, sexually explicit videos project an image of using young girls and women as sexual objects. Even rape doesn’t seem to be off-limits. Violent games played at a young age mesmerize young people and make them insensitive to the real thing when it happens.

It sounds like you are agreeing with some advocacy groups that are connecting video games, be they of the console or online variety, with malevolent or amoral behavior in social media or their daily lives?

Video producers seem to know no bounds in what they produce and put online. They take no personal responsibility for what they post on the Internet. They have no moral code to guide their actions. They use freedom of speech as a defense and the old adage: “Video games don’t kill people, people kill people.”

So what do you think are the special obstacles that online video presents to overcoming these ethics problems, both with millennials and society-at-large? (For example, what do you see to be its special lure?)

Indifference and the pursuit of self-interest. Those who make online videos rarely stop and think how their postings might affect others. They focus on how they can get their message across regardless of potential harms to society; how to become better known; and, ultimately, how to make money from what they do. There is no sense of personal responsibility to foster better behavior in society or to at least do no harm.

What is your #1 concern that stands out among all others with respect to Millennials use of social media in general?

Cyber-bullying is the one threat that concerns me the most. The anonymous postings that young people might make and hurtful things they might say make it easy to pick on those who are different than us without regard to the inhuman way they treat others. There is a failure of ethics in using social media in that all too many young people do not consider the consequences of their actions on others, and that is what makes cyber-bullying such a dangerous practice. I have blogged many times on cyber-bullying as a threat to society. (See the “Links” section for examples).

What solutions can you recommend for what needs to be done?

In a civilized society children must be taught at a young age that there are limits to what can and should be done; what is permissible behavior; what can and should be displayed in social media and online videos; and how they engage with their peers and others online. We need to teach young people at the earliest possible age to self-regulate their behavior based on a set of core values that have been accepted by societies throughout the ages: caring and compassion; honesty and integrity; fair treatment of others; responsibility and accountability; reliability and dependability; trustworthiness; and the pursuit of excellence in everything we do.

I would advise the makers of online videos to ask themselves the following questions before posting anything on the Internet: “How would I feel if my child were exposed to what I am about to post[GC1] ? Would I be proud if he or she knew I was responsible for the posting? Would I be able to explain it to my child[GC2] (or some else I care deeply about) in a convincing way why I made the video, and in a way that contributes towards his or her personal development?” If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,’ then don’t post the video!

In the end, all of our actions get back to the Golden Rule: To treat others the way we want
to be treated. We have gotten away from this standard of societal behavior over many years of insensitivity toward others, selfish behavior, and using social media to vent our feelings in a way most of us would not think of doing to someone’s face.

About Dr. Steven Mintz, Ethicist

Dr. Steven Mintz is a Professor of Accounting Ethics at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He has been teaching at the university level for over thirty years and is regarded internally as a leader in ethics. Along with several published textbooks and many research papers on ethics, he also regularly publishes at two blogs on ethics issues – and Dr. Mintz has also been interviewed by The New York Times for his expertise on dealing with ethical dilemmas in the workplace. He can be reached at


Cyber bullying

Online Video and Millennials

Online Privacy

 [GC1]Or someone I cared about?

 [GC2]or other loved one