The digital eraser: A right to be forgotten

California now requires a delete button for teenagers’ embarrassing online moments.

Trent M. Kays

We may not realize it, but our social media presence is never truly forgotten. Every photo, tweet and status update posted seemingly lives forever in the hidden realms of the Internet.

However, a recently signed California law will make deleting your web presence easier.

Unfortunately, websites often force users to search for the delete button. It becomes so difficult to simply delete one’s composite web presence that a button is almost useless.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB-568 into state law Sept. 23. The law is designed to help impetuous teenagers permanently delete inappropriate parts of their digital footprint. The provocative photos or online harassment, which would once be discoverable, will now be offered with an option to search and destroy.

This type of bill follows calls for the right to be forgotten. Some are distressed knowing what they do online will outlive them. This discomfort is particularly true of parents with teenagers. The constant call for children to be careful online is getting louder every day.

According to the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of teenage social media users have experienced cyberbullying or cruel behavior online. Parents don’t want children to suffer as adults because they posted something unseemly in their youth.

I don’t blame them, and I think this law is a great step forward. However, this law will only affect minors in California and only material they directly posted. Material posted via third-party applications will not be subject to the same directive.

While ordering a delete button for any online postings by minors, the law appears primarily directed at social media sites. The potential of virality with social media posts leaves too much to chance, especially when such posts could re-emerge at inopportune times.

While this law will do some good, it doesn’t really address the problem. If teenagers are posting things they may later regret, a permanent delete button doesn’t remove the effect of the posting. The delete button will help cover up the inexperience of young people, but it won’t change much.

The problem is teenagers are not being taught or introduced to appropriate ways to act on the Internet. Digital literacy and fluency isn’t valued in many educational settings, and now we have hoards of soon-to-be adult citizens posting things that may affect their future.

Where are the lessons in digital literacy? Where are the lessons in not being a jerk on the Internet?

This is a fundamental problem because the future will not become less digital. Children should be taught to consider the ramifications of what they do and post online, in the same way they are taught how to interact offline.

While the online-offline distinction is fraught with complications, this is usually how people think about their lives. However, one’s online life and offline life are one and the same. They aren’t separate. They influence each other, and the more connected the world becomes, the more others can learn about us.

Almost 20 percent of teenagers regret posting material after the fact, according to the Pew Research Center. Why do they regret it? Is it because they don’t know? If so, how could they not know?

It’s 2013, and this is still a problem. As a teacher, I often ask my students if they consider the consequences before posting things to their social networks. Most don’t consider the consequences. I would love to tell my students that small indiscretions from their past don’t always affect their future, but I’m afraid I’d be lying.

Everything we do — no matter in what environment — will affect us. So, then, how do we teach children and teenagers to be mindful of their Internet use?

We need to be vigilant. We can’t just tell people to be mindful or to be careful without showing them what that actually looks like. Moreover, we can’t just give people a magic button that allows them to erase parts of their past. While we may be disgusted by the acts committed by others in their past, it is still part of who they are. Each action makes up their identity.

To simply give teenagers a button to erase what they’ve done in the past doesn’t actually teach them anything. Instead, it tells teenagers that if they dislike something they did in their lives, they can easily delete and treat it as something that never existed. No responsibility.

Parents need to help teenagers understand how to act on the Internet. Schools need to also help teenagers understand the consequences of the Internet. While the Internet has given us so much, we can’t always treat it like a no-consequence amusement park.

If we don’t start treating the Internet and our online lives as something firmly connected to our offline lives, we’ll have a generation of citizens who don’t understand the consequences of their actions.

In this generation, many do not know how to build empathy digitally or interact with coworkers in an appropriate way online. While we can treat teenagers as the victims of online scrutiny, they will soon be the active users, owners and builders of the Internet. Are we okay with allowing digital immaturity in future generations?

A delete button for our past Internet mistakes is only a Band-Aid. We shouldn’t forget that.