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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Youth Civic Engagement Online: A Whole-school, Whole-Child Approach to Political Speech

Yael Kidron

Yael Kidron is the director of the Character Education program at the Markkula Center of Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

In November 2020, Generation Columbine will vote for the first time in the presidential election. These young people will think about issues such as school shootings, school violence, and gun control when they cast their votes. Their articulation of such issues on social media will be informative and eye-opening to the public and policymakers, and because of this, it is beneficial for society to support their free expression.

Generation Columbine grew up in a digital environment where access to social media allowed for sharing videos, commenting on news, and organizing rallies. Unfortunately, as evidenced by numerous lawsuits over the last decade, social media has also been used by youth for posting racist and derogatory remarks, mocking their school officials, spreading false rumors, and threatening peers and adults with violence.[1]

This mix of good and bad creates an ambivalent relationship between the education system and social media, which is further complicated by schools’ uncertainty about the boundaries of their authority to take corrective actions when students post inappropriate speech online.

School leaders typically focus on student conduct on campus and leave it to parents to address their children’s behavior outside the school and beyond the regular school day. However, the accessibility of the internet on mobile devices and the immediate impact of online posts have blurred the lines between home and school. This is an issue that is not going away, and it requires deliberate, proactive policies in educational environments.

How can ethical perspectives guide school policies concerning social media?

An ethical approach casts a broad net that captures the various aspects of the whole child. It aims to promote positive youth development—not just to mitigate the risks associated with internet use. The Markkula Center’s Framework recommends the use of more than one source of ethical standards for making a decision. Using multiple ethical approaches enables school leaders to consider different arguments in favor or against a proposed action. Here are some of the ethical considerations for using a proactive, systemic approach to preparing students for civic engagement on social media:

  • The Utilitarian Approach guides us to ask about an action or a policy if it will produce the most positive outcomes to students and do the least harm. A school wide initiative to educate students about the harmful effects of offensive posts and misinformation can raise students’ awareness of the effects of their actions on others and help students become more resilient and responsible consumers of online information. Learning how to take part in social activism online safely can support civic engagement.[2] Learning how to consume online information critically will help protect first-time voters from disinformation and propaganda.[3]
  • The Rights Approach asks whether the action or policy under consideration respects the rights of students. When schools invest in strategies that promote safe and responsible online behavior, they proactively protect multiple rights of students including the right to be heard and participate in decisions that affect schools, students, and the communities in which they live, and the right to be prepared to become an active and responsible citizen.
  • The Justice Approach examines whether an action or policy treats students fairly. Under this approach, a school wide framework for free speech on social media can foster equal voice and representation of students’ voices. Also, it can call attention to and prevent inequalities resulting from fear-inducing expressions of intolerance and prejudice.
  • The Common Good Approach asks whether the action or policy best serves the institution. From a school climate perspective, students’ online speech has the potential to disrupt school activities. For example, offensive posts can trigger conflicts at school, impair students’ psychological wellbeing, and reduce time for learning. Also, it can sabotage a school’s efforts to implement social and emotional learning and violence prevention programs. Moreover, some online activities, such as those that raise concerns about racism in schools, can induce tensions in the community that surrounds the school.[4] A school wide approach can foster a culture of respect both at school and online and serve the common interest of all stakeholders to be part of a safe and supportive school environment.
  • The Virtue Approach focuses on the values underlying the action or policy. The values may be explicitly articulated in the school mission and vision statements and may include, among other things, caring, kindness, respect, courtesy, responsibility, good citizenship, and school pride. The virtue approach encourages staff and students to regularly reflect on who they want to be and what kind of community they want to participate in. Virtues are the basis for humanizing educational approaches—whether instructional, disciplinary, or technological. Also, virtues can create a shared motivation to create school rules accepted by all stakeholders.

Schools can help shape the mindsets and skills essential for online political speech that are conducive to respectful, democratic debate. From multiple ethical perspectives, it is beneficial to attend to students’ interactions on social media as part of updating school plans for the next school year and involving school site teams comprised of educators, parents, and students in discussions about prevention and intervention strategies to address online speech.


[1] For example, Layshock v. Hermitage School District, No. 07-4465 (3d Cir. Feb. 4, 2010); J.S. ex rel. Snyder v. Blue Mountain School District, 650 F.3d 915 (3d Cir. 2011) (en banc); Bell v. Itawamba City School Board., 799 F.3d 379, 433 (5th Cir. 2015); R.L. vCentYork School, 183 F. Supp.3d 625 (2016); Shen vAlbany Unified School Dist., et al., 2017 WL 5890089

[2] CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans. (2018). CIRCLE Poll: So Much for Slacktivism, As Youth Translate Online Engagement to Offline Political Action. Medford, MA: Tuft University.

[3] Bradshaw, S., Neudert, L. M., & Howard, P. N. (2018). Government responses to malicious use of social media. Oxford, UK: Oxford Internet Institute.

[4] See for example community protests in response to Instagram posts in Shen vAlbany Unified School Dist., et al., 2017 WL 5890089.

Jul 2, 2019

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