Minors & Their Social Media Blunders: Why Forgiveness is the Best Policy

While Privacy Rights for California Minors in the Digital World aims to empower teenagers with the knowledge and tools to control their online personas, the legislation is limited in that it provides no additional mechanisms for control beyond the delete buttons that the most popular social media pages already feature. The impossibility of legislating the comprehensive removal of online content posted by or about minors puts the onus on the institutions that deal with minors to take measures towards forgetfulness to avoid punishing individuals who made youthful indiscretions

Many recent examples of minors posting questionable content on social media sites have been well-publicized. In some cases, the consequences are immediate and severe. Last year, a Texas teenager’s admitted sarcastic joke about “shooting up a kindergarten” made on Facebook during an argument over a computer game have him facing ten years of jail time on federal terrorism charges. In a less extreme example, a teenager’s live-tweeting of unflattering comments about her fellow attendees at a college admissions session led the university to blacklist her application. Even high schools are getting into the business of surveilling the online lives of teenagers, with a growing number of school districts paying online firms to track student activity and flag content indicative of cyber-bullying, drug use, or other undesirable behavior.  In other cases, the consequences come long after content is posted, and the individual may in fact never find out that it was their childhood social media persona that cost them a job or employment opportunity. In a Kaplan phone survey, a third of college admissions officers said that they visit applicants’ social media pages to learn more about them, and nearly all of them had discovered information that negatively impacted an applicant’s chance of admission.  And, we can only imagine the election campaign dirt-digging that will occur when the first generation to grow up with social media starts running for office.

A number of complex issues are at play here.

First, do minors between ages 13 and 18 understand the ramifications of posting something online?  We can reasonably assume that most of them haven’t imagined the worst-case scenario that might follow posting embarrassing or sensitive content. This is not to say they are not managing their online reputations at all. A recent Pew Internet study makes it clear that many teens have deleted content that they’ve posted online, and nearly 20% surveyed claimed to regret having posted something online. However, once content is online, there is nothing stopping someone who comes across it from copying it, effectively removing it from the control of the original poster.

The Privacy Rights for California Minors in the Digital World legislation outlines the rights of minors to delete anything they themselves have posted, but because of the nature of digital creation, has limitations in terms of others’ postings that may still impact the online reputation of a user.

Internet users have limited control over the content they post, and almost no control over content posted about them by others. As Peter Fleischer explains in Foggy Thinking About the Right to Oblivion, the cry of “privacy” is often in direct conflict with the U.S. concept of freedom of speech. It would be dangerous to go down the road of allowing individuals to request information about them be removed just because it has something to do with them. The notion of creating a mechanism that allows content to auto-expire after a given amount of time also doesn’t solve the ownership problem: if auto-expiration was technically possible, content could still simply be copied by another user and the setting for auto-expiration removed.

The technical and financial obstacles of making certain content harder to find in search engines or suing anyone who owns or publishes content about you necessitate other solutions to this thorny problem. Minors are particularly vulnerable: being at the prime age for identity experimentation, they’re likely to misapprehend the potential of a single post to change their lives a few years down the road when they’re trying to get into college or apply for their first jobs. And there is a subset of teens that is even more vulnerable according to Nathan Jurgenson for the Snapchat blog:

“It is deeply important to recognize the harm that permanent media can bring—and that this harm is not evenly distributed. Those with non-normative identities or who are otherwise socially vulnerable have much more at stake being more likely to encounter the potential damages past data can cause by way of shaming and stigma. When social media companies make privacy mistakes it is often folks who are not straight, white, and male who pay the biggest price.”

While it’s conceivable that teens could afford online reputation management services at $20 for a year’s subscription, it remains to be seen whether these services are effective. Teens are probably not very likely to successfully get sensitive content about them hidden in search engine results.

We should expect institutions that have dealings with minors to use utmost restraint in gaining access to data about them, especially if it’s not immediately relevant to the relationship we have with those institutions.

Unsettling is also what “delete” actually means. Even if content looks to be removed from the public eye, it is likely stored on a server somewhere, perhaps still accessible to some employees of the social media platform. Legislation in Europe has mandated that it be possible to request all the data Facebook has on a particular individual, which has revealed a staggering quantity of information stored about users — for some, the process yields a pdf document of 800+ pages.

To complicate things further, it’s not unthinkable that even what a minor might maturely and thoughtfully decide not to post might somehow come back to haunt her. Facebook has admitted to storing data on what users type out but then opt to delete, known to Facebook employees as self-censoring. It’s challenging to come up with useful policies and practices if what’s actually being kept flouts all reasonable expectations about behavior — “if I never post it, it doesn’t exist, right?” — and isn’t disclosed in Facebook’s privacy policy.

These issues show that, well-intended legislation aside, it is impossible to provide social forgiveness for minors via solely technical channels. Data Prevention and the Panoptic Society: The Social Benefits of Forgetfulness presents compelling arguments for why forgetfulness is a society-wide, rather than just an individual, benefit. There is a strong parallel between the social benefits of forgetfulness for juvenile crimes, discussed in that paper, and juvenile social media mistakes. Without a doubt, minors are going to do things that seem stupid and that, if they were to reflect on years later, they would regret. Companies and colleges that indiscriminately scrutinize the social media profiles of prospective students/employees will find embarrassing material on nearly anyone with an active social media life. Removing them from consideration will mean that they are missing out on people with a lot of potential. Rather than performing this scrutiny within a policy vacuum, organizations should have guidelines, perhaps influenced by national recommendations, on what is the appropriate type of content and within what time range which is relevant for their decision-making, with an eye toward taking a compassionate and reasonable perspective on content posted by minors.

By Tiffany Barkley and Robyn Perry