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Teens should have the chance to erase their online mistakes


While everyone makes questionable choices in their youth, it’s only recent generations that have had social media force their adolescent mistakes into their adult lives. It’s a problem society needs to address before it plagues generations to come, though it’s already too late.

See, for example, the high school students who made racist comments on Twitter after the reelection of Barack Obama, only for Jezebel to collect and publicly out them for it. Or the former Twitter account of Mhairi Black, the 20-year-old member of the British Parliament who was mocked in the press for tweets about underage drinking and complaints about school written when she was still a student. For those just now approaching adulthood, the innocent (if misguided) missteps of their youth stand to have consequences reaching throughout their adult lives.

A British digital rights group is hoping to give current and future generations the chance to evade this trap. iRights, in its stated mission to “make the digital world a more transparent and empowering place for children and young people,” released a report this week encouraging government officials and digital service providers like Facebook and Twitter to give young adults the chance to scrub the Internet of embarrassing social media posts they may have created before they turned 18. Calling it the “right to remove," iRights declares “Every child and young person should have the right to easily edit or delete all content they have created.”

Still, a majority of children are on social media by the age of 10. 

While most sites do provide a delete option for user posts, it’s a truism of the Internet that nothing is ever fully deleted. That said, it is reasonable to suggest the privilege we give minors to retain their privacy and the swath of damage they can do to their future spread into the digital sphere. While parents and kids should be educated on basic safety and management of an online reputation, there is room in our society for a social, and possibly legal, standard that respects the privacy of our youthful mistakes into our adulthood.

Those below the age of 13 already enjoy stringent privacy laws forcing companies to restrict themselves from collecting data on children that young. The 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act forbids any website from retaining the information of a user below 13 and restricts most social media sites from allowing accounts created without parental consent—COPPA is the reason many kid-oriented sites like Disney.com and Nickelodeon.com urge their users to get their parent’s permission. Online journal collective Xanga faced a $1 million penalty in 2006 for allowing pre-adolescents to create accounts without such safeguards.

Still, a majority of children are on social media by the age of 10.

Given the heavy use of social media by teenagers, however, it seems the spirit of COPPA could extend to teens without restricting their social media use as extensively as it attempts to do with tweens. Even the criminal records of adolescents are sealed for most purposes and, upon petition, adults can even have their delinquent youth expunged from all public records. Most press outlets in the United States will not even reference the name of a minor involved in a court case no matter what they’ve been charged with—until a judge decides to charge them as an adult. Even the lives of Malia and Sasha Obama, perhaps two of the most famous teenagers in the world, are safely guarded and largely respected by our culture.

Such a harbor of self-regulation is the goal of iRights in asking we protect the online history of teenagers. iRights does not propose a law like California’s confusing SB 568, or “Erasure Law,” which forces websites to offer teenagers the opportunity to have posts or images discarded before they’re shared by a third person. After all, nearly every site already has delete buttons. Nor does it go so far as backing the “right to be forgotten” (or RTBF), the controversial standard set by the European Union which forces companies like Google to remove any hurtful mention of a private citizen from their search results.

The RTBF stands to protect adults from facing the full actions of their consequences and, if implemented in the U.S., sparks crisis over the practicality of such a law under the First Amendment. More than 280,000 requests for removal of information flooded into Google once the EU forced the search giant to offer the option, some from rapists and terrorists looking to hide their criminal past. The Daily Mail even claimed it received a request to remove an article about Josef Fritzl, the Austrian man who kept his daughter and incestuous grandchildren in a literal rape dungeon for decades.

For children and teenagers, however, such a law could give them the RTBF they already enjoy outside of the digital world. The protections the courts and the press provide to minors is not a gift to youthful adventuring but a societal necessity to protect adults from having their professional and personal lives destroyed by mistakes made before they knew any better. Adolescents are supposed to make mistakes to learn enough before they enter adulthood and are forced to suffer the consequences of being fired or denied a job. Allowing their childhood online activity to be pilloried by the adult word accomplishes the opposite of what they need.

Teenagers are already embracing the likelihood their online activity could have consequences well into their adult lives. Many are fleeing the public sphere of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in favor of more secluded, anonymous sectors of the Internet like Snapchat, YikYak, and private messaging services like Kik. In 2014, Facebook usage among teens dipped from 72 percent to 45 percent while Snapchat ballooned, with 41 percent of teens using the ephemeral messaging service.

While much of that movement might be an attempt to escape the older demographics that reign on Facebook—namely parents—it’s also a reflection of teenagers’ inherent desire and deserved freedom to experiment and, therefore, make some embarrassing mistakes. Especially in this modern age, teens should feel free to make those mistakes without the fear it could needlessly ruin their future.

“The job of the healthy adolescent has not changed,” writes Carl Pickhardt, psychologist and author of Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence. “It is to push for freedom to grow; just as the job of healthy parents is to restrain that push for the sake of safety and responsibility.” 

Far from sheltering kids from the consequences of their actions, giving them the chance to clean up their online reputation gives them the opportunity to express what is regretful and what is not, making their representation of themselves and expression of the values we, the adults, have hopefully imparted upon them.

Photo via Rafael Castillo/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | | Remix by Max Fleishman

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