The Ethics of Student Anonymity

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Letting Students Live in an Anonymous World

By Dr. Karen Rezach, Director of the Ethics Institute at Kent Place School

KPS Middle School Student Engaging in Hybrid Learning

Only a decade ago, people were expected to “stand by” the opinions they expressed. They signed letters and added their names to emails. When they didn’t do that and contributed opinions anonymously, many people tended to dismiss what they had to say. If a student wrote an anonymous letter to report about being bullied or to complain about a coach who wasn’t being fair, school administrators were likely to think, “Well, if this student didn’t sign it, how much can we do?”

That has changed and today, anonymity has become a common, acceptable, and almost preferable way of communicating. Anonymous comments and complaints are treated with a weight nearly equal to those that are made by people who openly use their names.  

Why? It’s  because school administrators have come to see anonymity as a productive and important way to give voice to those who have no voice, and to encourage those who are not in a position of power to speak up. When a student anonymously reports being bullied by the “popular group,” for example, or about being ignored by a teacher or anyone else in authority, administrators now take those complaints quite seriously. 

As an aside, let me observe that there are also serious examples of this pattern in corporations, in oppressive societies, and in government, where people sometimes have no other option than to share information anonymously. 

The Power of “Anonymous”

The power of “anonymous” to effect change is significant and should not be underestimated or dismissed. However, at another level, the approval of “anonymous” as an acceptable means of communication is having a profound and erosive impact on our young people.

When students have an opinion, it is now sanctioned and common for them to post their views anonymously on social media. 

I do not believe this is a healthy trend. The Ethics Institute at Kent Place School was founded in part to help students discover their personhood, expressed in such questions as:

  • WHO am I as an authentic, unique individual? 
  • What are my intrinsic values — values that are part of my personal fiber and the basis of my decision-making? 
  • Can I bring my authentic voice “to the table” — to express my opinions, to create dialogue, to listen generously to the viewpoints of others? 
  • Can I respond respectfully in order to create understanding and mutuality?

Those Values Are Being Lost

Today’s “cancel culture” has created a climate of fear in which the threat of speaking one’s opinion or truth is intimidating. For a young person, posting something with a name and then being canceled by peers can be seriously damaging. Understandably, no one wants to be vulnerable to that. 

This pattern of “fear – threat – silence” poses a tremendous threat not only to our society, but also to students themselves.

This pattern of “fear – threat – silence” poses a tremendous threat not only to our society, but also to students themselves. Having no identity, or a hidden identity, or having a veiled personhood, will not develop courage, integrity, and trust. Instead, it will contribute to the demise of a civil society in which the authentic voice of each person is valued, heard, and respected. No longer will we be rich in diverse thoughts and ideas; instead, we will starve ourselves of the very thing that has made our society great — the unique contributions of every individual.

So how do we help students use their voices? How do we encourage active listening and civil communication when there is no discourse, only the one-way transmission of thoughts in the anonymous world of social media? 

Create a Safe Space for Discussion

he first thing that parents and teachers can do is to create a safe space in which different opinions are invited, allowed, and welcomed.

Image of KPS Upper School Students from 2018

If everyone in a student meeting seems to share an opinion, for example, I will bring in a differing viewpoint. I might ask if someone believes something different, or sometimes I will voice that different perspective and ask whether anyone agrees with what I have just said.

In general, someone will speak up and in that way I can sometimes create a setting where people become aware of the perspectives of other stakeholders. 

That process sometimes creates a space where people with differing perspectives and beliefs find it safe to speak, and safe to find their own voice. And when that happens, we have the opportunity to teach students to be respectful of one another and to different viewpoints. If we can accomplish that, we can hope that students will gain the courage to speak up, own their beliefs, and not be anonymous. 

Create a Safe Space at Home

Parents, using similar approaches, can create safe spaces at home where their children can speak up. I believe that at home, one of the first steps is for parents to model the behavior they would like to encourage in their children. 

Student Photograph from Ethics in
the Arts 2020 Virtual Sumer Program

If a parent becomes dismissive of differing opinions when watching the news or having a conversation with another parent who is in the home — or if a parent goes into attack mode when disagreed with — that can teach children to stifle their opinions or that disagreement is something to be feared.   

When differing viewpoints arise at home, a parent can say: “Tell me a little bit more about what you’re thinking, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about what I’m thinking.” When children see that model, it can become a framework for owning ideas and opinions. And it can help students develop the courage to voice their opinions in school and other settings and to own those opinions rather than voicing them anonymously. 

At Kent Place School and its Ethics Institute, we have found it helpful to encourage everyone in our community to use “I” statements, such as “I believe…” and “My opinion is …” Other people can then respond with “I” statements of their own, and in that way they often begin to learn the resilience of being able to respond respectfully.  

Home and school are microcosms of society. And if we establish safe spaces in them, they can become healthier environments where healthier societies are born. 

A Healthy Role for Anonymity

There will always be a need for anonymity. In certain situations, whistleblowers can be critical to exposing a range of problems. 

But we also know that in a majority of settings, encouraging our students, our children, and ourselves to voice opinions and defend them using our names builds courage and personal resilience.

In the end, it could help us build a healthier society, too.