Imagine if every journalist, partner, employer, police officer, teacher, political adversary, university administrator, public servant and anyone else with an internet connection (including your children or future children) had access to that information in the time it took to punch your name into a Google search.
For the rest of your life.
I feel the need to pause briefly here to give you a moment to reflect on the true nightmare of that idea as you mentally scroll through all your youthful indiscretions.
Gulp. Blush. Gasp. Cringe. Choke.
Oh the horror.
Fortunately for most of us, the idiotic behaviour of our school days endures only in anecdotes. Told at reunions or after a few drinks mostly. But what if they weren’t just funny stories? What if all the dumb decisions we made back then lingered like a virus, infecting every aspect of our future?
Welcome to reality for children and teens where everything they do online has the ability to seriously screw with their lives forever.
Trying to teach kids about cause and effect can be a tough gig, especially when ‘the future’ means next weekend. Science has proven that the part of the human brain responsible for processing consequences doesn’t fully develop until our early twenties.
Combine this with the fact that most kids are spending vast chunks of their lives online and most parents haven’t a clue what they’re doing there and you have trouble. Or the potential for it. If you asked the average adult what they need to protect their children from, they’ll instantly name “cyberbullying and paedophiles” as their biggest concerns. But the more obvious threat to kids online? Themselves. Because we’re not just talking about physical safety. There’s also the potential to damage their reputation, sometimes irreparably.
When President Obama spoke at a college graduation a few years ago, one student asked what she should do if she wanted to become President, Obama replied ‘Go home and erase your Facebook page’.
In a twist on this, many young adults are choosing to erase their identities instead. There’s an emerging trend in the US to change your name by deed poll to erase the digital evidence of your past so you can start afresh in the workforce.
Obviously, it would be better to avoid the whole deed poll thing by protecting your online reputation from the start, yeah? Yeah. So I’m gob-smacked by the number of parents who choose to be ostriches instead of helping their kids to navigate the digital world.
“Oh, I don’t understand that road safety thing. Seatbelts and looking right and left or whatever…it’s all too hard!” Imagine saying that. And yet this is exactly the attitude so many parents sprout about social media. That’s a worry because there are certain online behaviours that can torpedo your kid’s future.
Like sexting. We currently have the most absurd legal situation when it comes to sexting – the act of sending sexual images via phone or email.
Currently under Commonwealth law, anyone under 18 who sends or receives a sexual image over the Internet is guilty of child pornography offenses. Even if the image has been sent and received consensually. Even if the two parties are in a relationship. Even if they’re 17 and legally able to have sex. Whatever the circumstances, the sender of the photo is guilty of producing and distributing child pornography and the receiver is guilty of possessing it.
According to a recent report, two teenager ‘sexters’ were recently charged and prosecuted with child pornography offences and placed on the sex offender register in Victoria, branding them criminals and ruining their career prospects.
Plainly, this is absurd. As academic Nina Funnell wrote recently: “How can a person be charged for photographing their own body? And how can they be considered both the victim and the perpetrator of the same crime? This seems about as logical as charging a 15-year-old boy who masturbates with “molestation of a child” and ordering him to stay 500 metres away from his own genitals.”
Funnell goes on to note that child pornography laws were made to protect children not to criminalise teenage sexuality and wonders what good can come from grouping sexually curious teenagers in with convicted gang rapists and paedophiles. “Not only does this ruin their lives unnecessarily, but it also undermines the power and authority of the sex offender register. We must preserve the integrity of this register by reserving it for individuals who pose an actual threat to society.”
Damn right we must. But in the meantime, are schools warning kids about this? Are parents?
Someone needs to update Where Did I Come From? and they need to do it urgently. The world-famous sex education book so many of us grew up reading wide-eyed has always lacked a few fundamental chapters, like “Condoms Are A Great Idea”. But I’d like to suggest another addition called “Do Not Ever Text Anyone A Picture Of Your Bits.” Kids do dumb things. That hasn’t changed. What’s new is the everlasting proof.
UPDATE: a report reveals that half of all school principals don’t know their way around a computer, don’t undrestand social media and can’t use a smartphone. I find this terrifying. News Ltd reports:
A national survey by Principals Australia of 1600 school heads from public, Catholic and independent schools revealed one-in-two principals were struggling to keep up with technology now commonly used in classrooms.
About 90 per cent of principals said they had never used Twitter, 62 per cent had never used wikis, and 57 per cent had never used blogs.
Younger principals were also more tuned into the online environment, using social websites such as Facebook daily.
How do you handle social media? If you have kids, what have you taught them about it?