Nurture, nature and the ‘right to be forgotten’

In It’s Complicated, a new book about teenagers and digital technology, Danah Boyd puts an unusual spin on the fast-moving world of smartphones, iPads and laptops and social media. She sees the tension that so often exists over the use of these gadgets and platforms as just a new aspect of a perennial power struggle between teenagers and their parents. Teenagers need to assert their identity within their own group, preferably in a way that makes no sense to their parents. Amusingly, she cites the difficulty markets have had in understanding why Facebook is making some of its recent acquisitions, when they seem pointless to many ‘adults’.

Of course part of the worry is that our teenagers will do something using these new media that they’ll later come to regret, even if it is a badge of honour for now. Maybe some of the 41,000 people who have contacted Google to exercise the new ‘right to be forgotten’, which was confirmed recently by a European Union Court of Justice ruling and which gives us the opportunity to avoid coming up as a result in internet searches, are in this boat.

On the other side of the fence are just about all the major companies, who are currently licking their lips at the prospect of what they’ll be able to do in the new world of ‘big data’ – the trail of information that we leave behind, probably in a much more passive and unintended way than teenagers using social media. All we have to do, it seems, is to pass close enough with our mobile phone to a data-gathering litter-bin (no, really…) and we’ll be creating valuable market data for companies. It makes you wonder whether any of them go home and argue with their teenage offspring about how they use their phones…

But, as the recent debate around GCHQ and the US security services revealed, there is already so much ‘information’ out there that no-one can hope to analyse it, let alone use it. And another recent book, The App Generation, by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis shows how parents are in fact using the digital media to micromanage and mollycoddle their children – keeping tabs on them like they might a lost smartphone.

So, it definitely is complicated – that’s the one certain thing.

But the story of Emily, who was interviewed on the BBC’s You and Yours last week, hit home with me because it was about her experience in a school. Emily thought she had deleted her old social media account on Myspace (remember that) and did not give it a second thought when she took up her first teaching post. She then discovered that one of her pupils had a photo of her on his mobile phone. Although she had deleted the account, a link was somehow still accessible through a Google search. Rumours started that the photo was of her at a party at a pupil’s house, and that the photo was of a ‘compromising’ nature despite the fact that it was a quite innocent. Pupils made sexual comments in the school and her professional life was made impossible and it seems the school did little to support her.

What I take from Emily’s story is that the issue is not the technology or the possibilities that the technology opens up. That genie is out of the bottle and censorship in any form is not the way to deal with the issue. What we need to do, as we always did, is to give our teenagers the sense of right and wrong that prevents them from doing what was done to Emily. The temptations might now be greater – it’s so easy to do bad things quickly and apparently anonymously on the internet – but the moral questions don’t change. We’ve always had to struggle with our more base aspects of our nature – it’s up to us as parents and educators to nurture our teenagers in a way that gives them the tools to cope as technology develops. That responsibility, at least, has not changed.