2.3 Moral and Ethical Development

In this section, we will explore young people’s moral and ethical development. Networked technologies have presented new moral and ethical challenges.

Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development

Inspired by Piaget, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) theorized that a child’s morality develops in tandem with their cognitive development. According to his model, young people become more adept at addressing moral dilemmas at each stage of moral development.

Follow external rulesMorality begins with concrete thinking and a self-focused point of view. Children try to avoid punishment or gain rewards.
“Tit for tat”
Mutual expectationsChildren become more respectful of social systems and relationships. As they enter the teen years, their thinking grows more abstract: they begin to realize that others have different needs and viewpoints. 
Social system
Social contractFinally, teens may reach a level of “post-conventional” thinking, questioning social systems and issues in society they feel are unfair. 
Universal ethical principles


Kohlberg’s student Carol Gilligan criticized his stages of moral development for not including girls and women in his research. Gilligan found that women put more emphasis on empathy and interpersonal connection, while men tend to favor a justice orientation. (Other researchers have suggested that these differences may be based on societal expectations, not necessarily biology.) Gilligan also noted that people tend to act before they think — meaning there may be little connection between moral reasoning skills and prosocial behavior.

Morality and Default Mode

The brain’s “default mode network” activates when we are not thinking about our immediate external environment. It is associated with introspection and mindfulness — inwardly focused thoughts. Moral reasoning skills like empathy, self-understanding, abstract thinking, memory, and divergent thinking happen in default mode.

Some research evidence on the default mode of the brain suggests that there may be a connection with moral reasoning and emotion. However, emotions may come before reasoning. For instance, a reflective pause after a particularly emotional experience may activate the default mode of the brain. Researchers have begun exploring how our brain’s default mode might be impacted by technology, especially social media. Some research evidence has shown that social media use may activate parts of the brain that are externally focused, rather than the default mode that is centered on the internal. However, researchers have found some benefits of social media use. For example, the ability to connect across geographic and cultural boundaries is seen as a way to promote social reflectiveness and social responsibility

In the book Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, researcher Carrie James explored the moral dilemmas that youth face in using digital and networked technologies. Using findings from the Good Play Project at Harvard University, James points to the distinct qualities of networked technologies that can lead to moral dilemmas. For instance, networked technologies:

  • are participatory
  • are text-based, asynchronous, and sometimes anonymous, keeping interactions at “arm’s length”
  • allow for persistence, replicability, and searchability of content
  • are public, boundless, and “always on”
  • allow for multitasking and partial attention

In a study conducted by The Good Play Project, researchers examined how young people think about their online lives, make choices online, and respond to moral and ethical dilemmas they face in digital environments. During interviews with young people ages 10-25 as well as parents and teachers, the researchers posed hypothetical moral dilemmas that involved digital and networked technologies.

The responses from young people interviewed uncovered three types of thinking when faced with online moral and ethical dilemmas:

  • Ethical thinking. The young person was able to think more in abstract terms and consider how a wider community or public might be affected.
  • Moral thinking. They considered other’s feelings. They thought about people they knew and how their actions might impact them.
  • Consequence thinking. The young person was mainly focused on the rewards or the risks to the self.

Similar to Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, the first two stages align with consequence thinking. The third and fourth stages align with moral thinking, and the fifth and sixth stages align with ethical thinking.

In Disconnected, James highlights the “ethical thinking dispositions” that influence a young person’s decision to engage or not engage in moral or ethical thinking online, such as:

  • Sensitivity. An alertness to the moral or ethical dimensions of the situation is needed to engage in moral and ethical thinking. However, teens might see the rules of conduct differently in online contexts. For example, they may accept certain behavior while playing multiplayer video games. James refers to these as blind spots.
  • Motivation. Teens are alert to moral and ethical dimensions, but often lack the motivation to engage in moral thinking online. Fear of standing out too much may stop them from taking action. James calls this lack of motivation online disconnects.
  • Agency. In some cases, teens are compelled to take action when they see something troubling online. However, the anonymity and boundlessness of the Internet makes it difficult for teens to do anything as they do not feel a sense of agency.


  • What can youth librarians do to promote the brain’s default mode in a library environment? What is the impact of digital and networked technologies that disrupt the balance between looking out and looking in?
  • How would you develop a youth-centered library program or service that activates skills associated with the “default mode” of the brain?
  • What role should librarians play in addressing young people’s “blind spots” and “disconnects” when they use digital and networked technologies?

Thought Exercise: The Heinz Dilemma

Kohlberg used the following scenario to explore moral reasoning. He was not interested in what people answered, but why they answered however they did.

A woman was on her deathbed. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce. He paid $200 for the radium and charged $2,000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz, went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get together about $1,000 which is half of what it cost. He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said: “No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.” So Heinz got desperate and broke into the man's laboratory to steal the drug for his wife. Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not?1

Answer the question, making sure you write down why you think the man should or should not have stolen the drug. Then review the explanations on the Heinz dilemma Wikipedia page, and identify which stage of moral reasoning you were using to come up with your answer.

Explain the dilemma to other people (including some teens and children if possible) and ask for their answers. Which stages are they using? Do you see a difference with different ages?

1The Heinz Dilemma, Wikipedia.