The internet is a dangerous place. It’s a jungle full of miscreants, thieves, and scoundrels. It’s natural to want to protect kids from the dangers and many of the laws that have been passed or proposed to make it safer have been good. The latest bill out of California is not one of those good ones.
In essence, it will mandate that online companies must allow those under 18 to completely wipe out their activities on a website. The thought process behind the bill is that kids do dumb things and post personal data about themselves that could keep them out of a college, prevent them from getting a job, or even land them in jail. On the surface, this might seem like a good idea. In reality, it’s legislation designed to the job of two entities: the internet companies themselves and the parents.
It’s a dangerous bill because it will increase the “post what you will” mentality amongst teens. It’s hard enough to keep them from posting things that they shouldn’t on social networking sites, forums, and other web services. By telling them that anything they post will be done without permanent consequence, they’ll be able to be even less responsible for their actions.
Perhaps worse, it will force internet companies to have to collect more information about teens in order to make sure that they’re staying compliant with the law. They will need to know the ages and locations of everyone on their service. Otherwise, they risk breaking the new law if it passes. Many will simply set a blanket requirement that takes the most severe situation (in this case, California) and apply it to the rest of the country or the rest of the world.
The other speedbump in all of this is the viral nature of the internet. Let’s say a teen posts a video of them doing something stupid, albeit not illegal. If that post gets shared and goes viral, will the new law spread to other networks and other users’ accounts to delete the content when the teen decides they no longer want it to be on the internet?
How it should be handled
This should not be mandated. While there is clearly a need for legislation to be written that helps to educate teens, their parents, and the companies that service them, to mandate changes in the functionality of these sites is the wrong direction.
Here’s what should happen instead:
- Internet Companies – Rather than forcing a clean slate option, they should be made to inform teens of the consequences of their actions as they’re signing up. Heck, they could even be reminded every time they post something. “What you are about to post may follow you everywhere you go for the rest of your life. Is it something that you want to post?” Sounds weird, right? It would be insane to try to inform children of the potential consequences, but let insanity reign in this case.
- Parents – They’re your kids. You may not have signed up for the travails of monitoring and parenting a child in this digital age, but you’re here. Make them aware. Watch their activities. Guide them to do the right things. Punish them when they don’t do the right things.
- Teens – So much goes into making sure that teens aren’t able to hurt themselves, yet it seems that they’re doing more and more damage every day. At some point, can these young adults start to take responsibility for their own actions? If they post something stupid enough to follow them around for the rest of their lives, there’s a good chance that they were aware of how stupid it was. The challenge is that they don’t understand the consequences. What if we legislated education about the consequences rather than mandating that companies make it easier for them to post stupid things and erase them later?
These are different times. Everyone who lived through being a teenager in previous generations knows that there are always difference from one to another, but this is a completely different world thanks to technology and the internet. Nobody is claiming that it’s going to be easy. However, making it easier for teens to be stupid online is not the answer. Preventing them from being stupid online in the first place – that’s what lawmakers, companies, parents, and teens should all be striving to achieve.
“Teen Online” image courtesy of Shutterstock.