The online social world has permanently altered the future. Young people are coming of age in an era where they can easily take and post photos online, share them with friends and family, and garner an audience of strangers. Teenagers — notoriously short in foresight, susceptible to “groupthink” and peer pressure, anxious to fit in and define themselves as individuals, exploring new aspects of adulthood — now have access to an infinite audience on the web. The combination often makes for toxic results, and sadly having a sloppy drunken photo on your Facebook page is often the best case scenario. There are already some infamous cases in which teenagers were persuaded or coerced into taking nude photos of themselves, only to find that their audience held them at ransom for years afterward, ruining their lives and threatening their futures. We all know that employers are going to check an interviewee’s social media to see what sort of person they are in their off time; can you imagine trying to apply for a job when you know that your boss could find your most humiliating secret at any time?
The abuse and exploitation of minors in social media circles is an area where the law has yet to catch up to reality. Due to the anonymous nature of the internet, it can be tough to track down a bully — or prove beyond reasonable doubt that the virtual abuse caused real-life harm. But a lot of the time a teen can be his or her own worst enemy. Take a look at any ‘Facebook Fails’ website and you’ll see hundreds of examples of poor judgment — of kids engaged in dumb, illegal, embarrassing, or self-incriminating behavior. They tweet before thinking and comment; all of which will come back to bite them when they find themselves on a major job search.
In this vein, it’s refreshing to read that California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a bill into law which requires websites to remove content when requested to do so by a minor. The bill allows minors to essentially push an “erase button” for digital content; while sites may not be required to completely eliminate the requested data, they have to remove it from the view of the public.
It’s important to note that this law doesn’t apply to content posted by a third party; it sadly can’t remove compromising photos posted by friends, enemies, or blackmailers. The bill doesn’t apply to sites which anonymize the content and/or their users, making it difficult to identify the minor individually. However, it does apply to social media sites, and even sites registered outside of California have to comply if a Californian teen requests the removal of content.
It’s tempting to scoff at this measure and chuckle at the hubris of adolescence. Many people argue that these digital records, however embarrassing or incriminating, are nonetheless important — and public — records of major prejudices, risk-taking behaviors, and other indicators of reliability and respect. But today’s teens are guinea pigs in an experiment which has no precedent; there has never been anything like Facebook before. Their mistakes aren’t unique to their generation; they are, however, far more widely recorded for public consumption. I think it’s a great step towards incorporating the social web into our lives and accepting that it is going to be a permanent part of how we interact with one another for the foreseeable future. If the California law gives teens a chance to clean up their act when those frontal lobe brain cells finally sprout, then they should have the same opportunity as their predecessors to put their best foot forward into young adulthood and beyond.