A bill recently passed in California by Governor Jerry Brown mandates that social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr allow teens to permanently delete embarrassing video, text, and photo posts they made before they turned 18. The law is designed to ensure that people do not have to live with the mistakes of their teenage years for their whole lives. Though the Californian bill is well intentioned, no bill can be comprehensive enough to fully insulate young people from online mistakes. The nature of social content is that it spreads far beyond the purview of the site on which it originates — and its consequences do, too. Rather than legislate the issue, the best thing we can do to protect young internet users would be to educate them, preventing such posts in the first place.
Millennials are the first generation that's had to deal with having an extensive record of their young lives online. Previous generations typically learned from their mistakes and forgot about them. California State Senator Darrell Steinberg told the Los Angeles Times that the new law offers, "groundbreaking protection for our kids, who often act impetuously with posting of ill-advised pictures or messages before they think through the consequences." But to quote an old adage, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Instead of focusing on allowing people to remove damaging posts, we should support initiatives to teach good internet practices in the first place, like the Berkman Center for Internet and Society's Youth and Media Lab at Harvard University, which seeks to increase media literacy and digital empowerment. Creative ideas like the Youth and Media Lab are what will enable kids to make the right decisions. Moving forward, we need more resources to spread the message, and increase awareness.
Of course, education about the internet has to do more than simply train kids to make good choices. It has to promote a culture that supports healthy online behavior. Parents should be familiarized with the challenges that their children face online, in order to adequately support their kids. Among other things, parents should familiarize themselves with the online vocabulary used by their children, so they can protect them in cyberspace. Know the Net, a leader in parental education, conducted a study that showed that only three out of 10 parents are able to understand terms like "trolling" (for what it's worth, mothers seemed to be more adept than fathers at net-speak). Know the Net has launched a campaign to educate parents, because if we're going to protect children, everyone must be on board.
While the bill passed by Brown isn’t a bad idea, there are better ways to protect young people online. Kids will always make mistakes; it’s how they learn. The best thing we can do is minimize those mistakes to begin with. Think of the internet as a hot stove: a dangerous but useful tool. Rather than treating children who have already been burned, our society should focus on teaching kids how to protect themselves in the first place.