Talking to Students About Cyber-Ethics

Sharing software may seem like an easy way for school administrators to economize when budgets are tight. But making unauthorized copies of a copyrighted software program or downloading it for free from the Internet is often illegal and it can place computer data and systems at risk. It also sends a message that it's sometimes okay to steal.

Yes, copying software without permission is stealing, and it is essentially no different than shoplifting the same program from a computer store.

As seasoned educators know, elementary-age children, particularly between the ages of nine and 12, are learning to evaluate the consequences of their actions and to understand abstract concepts, says Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, PhD, a behavioral development expert at St. Louis University.

With four computers per student in U.S. schools nationwide, and more computer usage entering the curriculum yearly, it's worth exploring the do's and don'ts of cyber-ethics. Here's what teachers need to know to ensure that they and their students can protect themselves.

The Basics

What exactly is "software"? We think of it as the brains behind the games, design programs, word-processing tools, and virtual bookkeepers many adults and children use and enjoy. But software is a real thing, just like a toy, a board game, or a book. The technical term for it is "intellectual property," and its ownership is protected just like other types of property.

When buyers purchase a program, they are acquiring only the right to use it. The right to copy it, or "copyright," generally stays with the creator or manufacturer. That right is spelled out by the "license agreement" to which the user agrees when installing the program.

"Pirated" software whether copied from a friend, illegally downloaded from the Internet, or purchased from a vendor of illegally-made copies at an online auction site is created without the permission of the copyright owner.

Even worse, software piracy puts computers at risk of "viruses" and "worms" harmful hidden programs that can destroy files or damage entire computer systems. You never know a file from a friend, colleague, or classmate can contain a virus or worm that could infect one computer or even an entire network.

"What'd you learn in school today?"

Teachers can't completely rely on parents to teach the correct lesson. Mom and Dad may not know the rules about software copyright, either. Nearly two-thirds of youth and parents agree that the children know more about the Internet than their parents do, according to a Pew Internet & American Life Project published in November 2002. Once students learn about cyber-ethics, they'll have new information to share with the adults in their household.

A classroom discussion about cyber-ethics is also a great opportunity to discuss career choices in technology fields and to explore some simple economics concepts.

A simple picture of how software goes from idea to finished product helps students begin to comprehend the impact of software piracy. Explain that it's someone's job to create those entertaining games, helpful word-processing tools, and charming do-it-yourself greeting card programs. Software piracy losses can eliminate that job. According to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), in 2001, more than 111,000 jobs and $5.6 billion in wages were lost as a result of software piracy. In total, piracy losses approached $1.8 billion in the United States.

Consumers lose too. Budget cuts may mean fewer games and other software are produced a bleak prospect for most 21st-century kids.

A Fresh Start

Children can protect themselves and the computers they use by learning to follow a rule they first heard right there in the classroom: "Don't copy!"

If there is content they wish to download or a program they'd like to own, ask them to look for the copyright symbol (©) or license agreement before downloading or copying it. If the program is protected, ask them to agree to obtain it legally.

When they know the rules, they can do the right thing wherever they are: in the classroom, at home, at a friend's house, or away at summer camp.

Seeking Cyber-Ethics Resources

For more help with educating children about software piracy issues, visit Play It Cyber Safe (, a clearinghouse for information and activities that promote smart and safe computer and Internet use. The site offers students in grades three to eight a selection of engaging, age-appropriate activities, including a curriculum created by BSA and children's publisher, Weekly Reader, that make it easy to learn more about intellectual property, copyright and the ethical and legal uses of software. A free educational curriculum is even available for download and yes, you have our permission!

  • Student Discussion Grades 3- 5: A Sample Conversation
  • An Exercise to Do with Your Child in Grades 3 - 5
  • Exercise: Software Piracy Affects Everyone
  • Statistics and Facts on Software Piracy
  • Software Piracy
  • Children and Computer Usage
  • Education's Influence
  • Basic Computer and Internet Usage
  1. Creator
  2. Manufacturer
  3. Retailer
  4. Office and Factory Workers
  5. Sally

How They Are Affected:

  • a. Her computer may be damaged by a virus while she illegally downloads a game.
  • b. May lose their jobs because legitimate software-related businesses lose too much revenue from software theft.
  • c. May not invest in developing new games or software because of loss of revenue due to software theft.
  • d. Doesn't get fairly compensated for his creative work and has his copyright infringed.
  • e. May cut jobs or close stores because of reduced demand for legitimate software.

1. ___________
2. ___________
3. ___________
4. ___________
5. ___________

Remind students that if they:

  • purchase unlicensed software OR,
  • illegally download it from a Web site OR,
  • illegally copy someone else's software... it's the same as stealing someone's property.
  • More than one third of adult Internet users say they have downloaded commercial software online without paying for all the copies they made. (Source: "Quantifying Online Downloading of Unlicensed Software à Survey of Internet Users," IPSOS Public Affairs, May 2002)
  • 25 percent of users who download software say they never pay for it. (Source: IPSOS, May 2002)
  • Software piracy cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1.8 billion in software revenue in 2001. (Source: "2001 Global Software Piracy Report," International Planning and Research Corp., June 2002)
  • The loss to the economy has significant impact, including more than 111,000 jobs lost, $5.6 billion in lost wages and more than $1.5 billion in lost tax revenue. (Source: "2001 State Software Piracy Study," International Planning and Research Corp., October 2002)

Children and Computer Usage:

  • Nine out of 10 school-age children (ages 6 to 17) had computer access in 2000 and were rapidly gaining Internet access. (Source: "Home Computers and Internet Use in the United States: August 2000," U.S. Census Bureau, September 2001)
  • About 80 percent of children have Internet access in school, regardless of their ethnic group or family income. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2001)
  • Only 17 percent of youth and 11 percent of parents could name a specific authority, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), CyberTipline, or an Internet service provider, to which they could report an Internet crime. (Source: Youth Internet Safety Survey, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2001)
  • Dr. Marvin Berkowitz of St. Louis University conducted an analysis of the behavioral development factors that must be considered in searching for an optimal age range for instruction of cyber ethics. Dr. Berkowitz concluded that the 9-12 age was a "very reasonable" age to target for a first time strategy of cyber ethics instruction. . . The 9-12 age is also the point in development where children begin to understand abstract values, for example, privacy rights, and can begin to evaluate the consequences of their actions. (Source: "The Cybercitizen Partnership: Teaching Children Cyber Ethics," Information Technology Association of America Foundation, 2000)
  • A recent online poll by Scholastic Magazine of almost 50,000 elementary and middle school students showed that 50 percent of the students did not believe that hacking was a crime
  • Most Internet use among young people occurs from the home (63 percent). (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation, 2001)
  • 78 percent go online at least a few times a week. (Source: Kaiser, 2001)
  • Among the youth who go online, about 70 percent say they have accidentally stumbled across pornography online. (Source: Kaiser, 2001)
  • Almost a third of children watch less TV since having Net access in 2002, up from 23 percent the year before (Source: UCLA's Internet Report, January 2003)

Education's Influence:

  • More than 80 percent of U.S. children who used the Internet last year did so at home, a substantial increase over 2000 and 2001, and nearly three-quarters of children who used the Internet in 2002 went online at school, up from little more than half of children in 2000. (Source: UCLA's Internet Report, January 2003)
  • Twelve states have established online high school programs, and five others are developing them. Twenty-five states allow for the creation of so-called cyber charter schools, and 32 states have e-learning initiatives under way. (Source: "E-Defining Education: A Survey of State Technology Coordinators," Education Week, 2002)
  • It was expected that 40,000 to 50,000 K-12 students would have enrolled in an online course by the end of the 2002 school year. (Source: "Virtual Schools: Trends and Issues," commissioned by WestEd)
  • In the United States, the national student-to-computer radio is now about 4 to 1. (Source: "Technology Counts 2002," Education Week)

Basic Computer and Internet Usage:

  • Nearly two-thirds of youth and parents agree that the children know more about the Internet than their parents do. (Source: "Parents Online," Pew Internet & American Life Project, November 2002)
  • 54 million households have at least one PC at home and 44 million have Internet access. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2001)
  • Just over 70 percent of the nation's mothers age 21 and over used computers in 2002, up significantly from 57 percent in 2000 and 35 percent in 1994. (Source: 2002 Technology User Profile report, MetaFacts)

Children ages 5 to 17 have extensive access to computers. Between 1993 and 1997 access among this age group increased from 32 percent to 50 percent at home and from 61 percent to 71 percent at school. These numbers were significantly higher in the year 2000. Among households with computer access, 60 percent of children ages 3 to 5 years are actively accessing the computer, 84 percent of ages 6 to 11 use the computer and 89 percent of ages 12 to 17 years are accessing the computer. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau, September 2001)