Social media erase button not a solution

Californian legislators have come up with a plan that would help teenagers delete their online presence, or at least the parts that are held by social media sites.

It’s an incredibly tempting notion: as the Independent’s Grace Dent points wrote this week:

If only I could have rounded up my past in binliner at 18 and set it alight. All those love letters, declaring undying love now sitting in the lofts of boys I can’t remember the names of, the missing diaries, the angry letters sent to the NME, some petulant letters sent to Mars Inc. about the Marathon to Snickers name change. How lovely if aged 18, following a short button pressing ceremony I was officially no longer a twerp.”

Dent is writing about a teenage past pretty much pre-Internet, never mind pre-smartphone with 8 megapixel camera. I’m of the same vintage. There’s really very, very little of young me out there. Thank God.

It is different of course for teens today, who innocently post vast amounts of information about themselves online. We’re beginning to see the repercussions of that. Cast your mind back to earlier this year and the case of 17-year-old Paris Brown, the recently elected youth police and crime commissioner for Kent, who lost her salaried job after someone dug up a few stupid things she’d posted on Twitter a few years previously. It’s depressing that people can be so unforgiving of children.

Much worse, Texan teenager Justin Carter could face jail after being charged with making “terroristic threats” during a Facebook argument about a video game.

Could an erase button solve any of this? I’m not sure. It is possible to get rid of one’s Facebook and Twitter accounts already, but will it be possible to erase all the mentions? The tagged photos and endless other footprints left online? I’m not so sure.

Moreover, I don’t know if it’s a really positive idea. If the web is to be part of everyday life, which we seem to want to encourage, then how does this initiative, essentially creating two different lifetimes, work?

At an Index on Censorship discussion on young people’s free speech online last Monday, an interesting idea emerged: should the joys and dangers of social media be taught in school? Like sexual education is taught? Social media, like sex, is part of life and people should be taught about it sensibly. The worry with a button that effectively erases one’s adolescence is that it may mean we avoid talking about positive social media use for teens in the first place.

On top of all this is broader society. Should we not be a little more forgiving of young people’s indiscretions? A little less judgmental?

We should be able to to delete information we’ve put online about ourselves, absolutely. But we should also be creating an atmosphere where young people don’t feel the need to take the nuclear option and erase years of thoughts, ideas and memories.

This article was originally published on 27 Sept 2013 at

Can we change how we talk about the web?

If we want the web to be a positive place for young people, we need to start talking about the positive things that happen there

Facebook IPO garners less attention in Asia
Texan teenager Justin Carter was released on bail on 11 July, after his $500,000 bail was paid anonymously. His family had been unable to raise that amount previously.

The young man had been in a Texan prison since February, charged with making “terroristic threats” on Facebook.

What exactly did he say?

During an argument with fellow gamers, in which doubts had been cast on his sanity, Carter posted:

“I’m f—ed in the head alright. I think I’ma shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them.”

Not pleasant, no. Not particularly funny. But is it an actual threat? I really don’t think so.

Carter’s lawyer insists that the teen posted “LOL” and “jk” (joke) immediately afterwards to clarify that he wasn’t serious. And yet he finds himself facing a terror-related charge, with a possible sentence of 10 years ahead of him.


Americans are often wrongly accused of not getting irony, but this is one of those awful cases where the letter of the law clashes with expression that is clearly not meant to be taken literally.

Britons will be all too aware that they cannot be too complacent about these cases. People such as Paul Chambers, Azhar Ahmed, Liam Stacey and Matthew Woods have all felt the full force of the law for inappropriate, ill-advised social media messages, under laws that have been clumsily applied and don’t really allow for context – the crucial component in all free speech cases (though the Crown Prosecution Service has at least attempted to offset this problem with its new recommendations).

It’s interesting that almost all these recent cases involve young men.

The only exception I can think of is 21 year-old British woman Deyka Ayan Hassan, who was recently sentenced to 250 hours community service for a tweet in the aftermath of the murder of Lee Rigby, in which she said anyone wearing a Help For Heroes t-shirt deserved to be beheaded.

A lot of social media at the moment is based on getting a reaction; our worth is based on how many likes or comments a post gets, or responses and retweets on Twitter. The most hardened editor will sit anxiously viewing how many times an article is tweeted.

This pushes content posted in certain directions: either mind-numbingly banal but well meaning to the point where people feel bad for not responding (RT IF YOU THINK CANCER IS BAD), or snarky and borderline – or just plain – offensive (CANCER IS LOLZ).

The latter type of comment is the one that’s getting young people in trouble.

A segment of the Olympic opening ceremony in London last summer made a great deal of the amazing power of communications technology in young people’s lives, with “founder of the web” Tim Berners Lee looking on benignly as a sweet love story played out between pretty teenagers wielding smartphones.

But the way we talk about the web now does not reflect that idealism. The current debate in the UK portrays the web overwhelmingly as the habitat of trolls, predators, bullies and pornmongers. And that, plus the police are watching too, ready to arrest you for saying the wrong thing.

I can’t help feeling that all this doom-mongering could be self fulfilling. If we keep thinking of the web as the badlands, that’s how it will be, like a child beset by endless criticism and low expectations. We need to talk more about the positive side of life online – the conversations, the friendhips, the opportunities – if we’re going to get the most out of it.