Teens get reset on the Internet


There are any number of people with embarrassing photos, videos or e-rants floating around the Internet who wish they could take those indiscretions back.

California is trying to force an Internet reset, at least for teenagers.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law legislation Monday that has become known as the “eraser bill.” Basically, according to reports, the law requires social media websites by January 2015 to give Californians under the age of 18 a method for deleting Internet postings that could hurt their reputation or adversely impact their chances of landing a job or getting into a college.

The measure has weight because few national companies can be successful without marketing to California, where about a ninth of the U.S. population resides. Also, it’s a sure bet that other states will follow its lead in protecting young Americans from their own immaturity. This won’t be a new thing for the big guys like Facebook and Twitter, which already have this type of feature, but it will force others to provide young users with the ability to perform an Internet reboot of sorts.

The explosion of social media has made this a real problem for many people. Company officials, for instance, often conduct background checks on new hires, and embarrassing photos of too much drinking and partying and not enough clothes on a social media site might not be the image a corporation wants to project.

While this law has many positives about it, there is a danger in thinking that it is a cure-all. The fact is, once an individual sends something out to the Internet, it can be captured and come back to haunt him or her. If youngsters get the idea that anything they send out can be removed at their direction, then they won’t see a reason to change their behavior. An indiscreet photo texted to a boyfriend or girlfriend isn’t going to disappear because of this.

In the “good old days,” a reputation was in many ways easier to protect from momentary lapses in judgment. A photo, for instance, could be controlled if you were able to obtain the print and the negative. Now, it’s all bits of ephemeral information buzzing around on countless servers.

That’s why the most important influence on a young person’s behavior on the Internet, as in nearly every other area of life, has to be the guidance he or she gets from a parent. Someone has to explain that self-destructive behavior can’t be legislated away and that laws can’t impart maturity and foresight. Life is not a video game with endless resets and new lifelines. There is no way any law, state or federal, can guarantee that an indiscretion by a teen won’t come back and hurt that individual in adulthood.

The California law will help in some cases, but in the vast majority the solution is much simpler. Assume everything posted to the Internet will be there forever. It will make that rant a little less caustic and may give that funny picture you shot while wasted at the beach a more sober perspective.

The Albany Herald Editorial Board