What our kids post on social media is forever. Calls for 'digital erasure' could change all that.
Dumb, drunken photos. Racist slurs. Homophobic tirades. Religious extremism. Soul-baring confessions of mental illness, addiction and self-harm.
Social media is literally driven by drama. It’s built right into its algorithms.
Dropping young people into that environment - when their brains are not yet fully mature, and the need to experiment with ideas and identity is developmentally driven - is a recipe for regret. If not immediately, then eventually.
The problem? “A whole lot of content, whether it’s accurate or not, is there with you when you become an adult,” says digital literacy specialist Joanne Orlando.
And the impact of that content, particularly what kids post on social media, can be devastating.
The digital erasure option
A recent US study found 36% of college admissions officers access applicants’ social profiles. Fifty-eight percent said the result had a negative impact on their decision-making.
Calls for a “digital erasure option” are increasing, but the issue is controversial, pitting the right to free speech against the right to privacy - sometimes called “the right to be forgotten.”
Experts raise a host of thorny questions - At what point should kids know better? When, if ever, should a person’s permanent digital record begin? Can social media be reserved somehow as a space for experimentation around identity and social behaviour for young people?
“These are fantastically difficult moral dilemmas for teenagers who act impulsively, using tools that are not fully under their control, leading to consequences that perhaps none of us can anticipate,” Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told The Washington Post.
“This is the first time we’ve had a society in which almost by default, everything is recorded and shared and aggregated in ways that create a lifelong profile. Children should have the right to make mistakes.”
27-year-old Alexi McCammond was denied that right recently, when objectionable tweets she’d posted a decade previously came to light - costing her a top job as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue.
Teens’ underdeveloped brains do lead them to impulsive behaviour, both online and off. As Orlando notes, “adolescence is a time when we are highly influenced by others. What we do and say is not necessarily genuine to who we are.”
But in the online world, even a single ill-considered comment can shadow a young person well into adulthood. Spoken words dissolve and are forgotten. Words and images posted online are forever.
What's the solution?
But what to do to prevent our children’s social posts from casting a shadow over their later academic and career prospects?
Legal skills professor Stacey Steinberg advocates teaching kids a new set of skills for engagement online while establishing “public policy and perhaps law” to protect them.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has gone even further - suggesting that, in order to distance themselves from their youthful online identities, young people be granted the right to change their names.
In Europe, regulations allow individuals to petition for digital erasure of content that “no longer reflects who they are” and “no longer serves a legitimate purpose.”
Once granted, digital erasure does not actually “erase” problematic posts. It simply prevents them from being linked to that person via search engines.
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