Giving children 'iRights' to delete what they put online sends the wrong moral message

We can't expect teenagers to behave decently online if we take away the possibility of permanent consequences for their actions

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The Independent Online

Charities, politicians, journalists and public figures have almost universally come out in support of iRights, a five-step plan that aims to improve online experiences for under 18s. One of these tenets is the right for children to be able to edit and delete any content they have created in their wayward youth, meaning that a throwaway remark on your Facebook page won’t get dredged up by a future employer one day and used against you. Everyone is clamouring to tell you that it’s a sensible and compassionate idea. But allowing today’s children to rewrite history sets a dangerous precedent, and ignores the reality of their online lives.

The generation who can’t remember life before the internet – and yes, they exist – cultivate an online presence that is intricately interwoven with their physical one. They make Vines in their lunch hour, live-tweet their favourite TV shows and conduct their social lives partly in the school corridors and partly on Facebook and Snapchat. They’ve even invented their own brand of bullying – cyber-bullying, which is so much more effective than stealing somebody’s lunch money or shoving them against the lockers when you consider that the pressure can now go on in a 24-hour loop. Kids today destroy their classmates’ lives with a Chinese water torture of targeted online messages, specially designed to destroy the target’s self-esteem. You don’t get second chances if you stalk and harass someone in real life, so why should it be any different on social media?

When mouthy teens deliberately flout the risks of posting unwisely online, they learn the hard way – and they often learn with far-reaching, permanent consequences. The fact that the little mites have posted something nasty or stupid online rather than announcing it from a soapbox or writing a physical letter is immaterial. Adolescents know what they’re doing, and the problem lies in their more sinister endeavours, rather than photographs of sixth formers enjoying a night on the town.

Mhairi Black, the MP for the SNP who was elected at only 20 years of age, has been an active Twitter user since her early teens. When her opponents dredged up some of her early tweets, which included swearing and references to drinking, it resulted in no damage to her campaign – after all, we were all young once. As time goes on, there will be more and more MPs and public figures with potentially embarrassing social media gaffes in their closet. Eventually it will become the norm, and in 2035, when we see photos of our new Prime Minister passed out during Freshers’ Week with a marker pen penis drawn on his or her head, nobody will bat an eyelid.

However, if iRights had their way, Mhairi Black would have been able to get rid of her pre-2012 timeline, and anybody could permanently delete everything they’d ever posted once they hit the magical age of eighteen. Even ignoring the obvious issues around putting that into practice – can anything that’s been online ever truly be removed? – it would lead to a world where young people would be left with a warped sense of reality when it comes to responsibility.

 

We face a potentially dangerous situation if teenagers know that one day, all record of their interactions will vanish into the ether. It’s easy for older generations to assume that, due to the sheer volume of what young people post, they’re documenting their every thought online, but there is a degree of filtering going on. Remove the fear of a potential backlash later in life, and that filter disappears.

This initiative to give children the online equivalent of the Men In Black memory deletion device smacks of a society that thinks it knows what’s best for children in an area it doesn’t understand, a world that is so desperate to protect its young people that it forgets that mistakes are how we learn. Maybe the people at iRights should accept that and, like children are forced to do, simply grow up.

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