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Digital Delete Button: Should We Erase Kids' Social Media Mistakes?

Published on: February 05, 2014

Surprised teenTeens say the darnedest things. And often what they say is impulsive, with no thought given to how it might sound a few months — or years — down the road. So it’s a good thing their lives aren’t being recorded to haunt them in the future … right?

For many teens, life is being recorded — through social media, websites and interactive apps. Snarky comments, inappropriate photos and silly status updates are becoming a permanent record that might affect kids when they apply to college or interview for jobs. If only the worst moments of adolescence came with a “delete” button.

Currently, there is no federal law protecting teens’ online privacy. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), enacted by the federal government in 1998, only protects kids younger than 13. But in 2015, California aims to be the first state to put legislation in place that protects the privacy of teens when they post online.

Should other states — or even the federal government — consider doing the same? Will these new laws really help protect our kids, or will they encourage reckless online behavior by eliminating negative consequences?

Impact of the “online eraser”

California Senate Bill No. 568, also known as the “online eraser” or “eraser button” law, was approved in September 2013 and is due to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2015.

The bill has two parts. First, it prohibits websites, online services and mobile apps directed toward minors from marketing certain potentially dangerous goods and services. The second part of the law — and the most controversial — requires an “eraser button” that allows minors to remove information they’ve posted. The reasoning behind the law is that it gives kids and teens a chance to think twice after sharing sensitive or inappropriate personal details about themselves and others that they may regret later.

Supporters of the law, such as nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, believe it gives minors more control over their online profiles. “Kids often self-reveal before they self-reflect,” says Joni Lupovitz, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media. “Teens are often tech-savvy, but [they] haven’t yet developed the same self-control and judgment as adults.”

By requiring websites and apps to give registered users instructions on how to remove content they’ve posted, the online eraser law attempts to let minors fix their digital mistakes after they reflect.

Poking holes in the law

Opponents of the law cite a number of potential issues related to its effectiveness and enforceability.

From a legal perspective, critics point out that states don’t have the authority to police a global entity such as the Internet. If a website or app is targeted at minors, or if the site’s or app’s owner has knowledge that minors are among its users, must it comply with the law in order to interact with users in California? How will the state guarantee that all applicable websites and apps used by its residents comply with this law? The task is daunting at best, and many argue it’s impossible. The law could also pose logistical and financial challenges to website and app owners and developers, which would have to make significant changes in order to comply.

Eraser hitting deleteCritics also argue that this law is unnecessary, because the sites and apps minors use most, such as Facebook and Twitter, already allow users to delete posts. The law’s supporters counter that while this is true, the new law would help ensure that these sites continue to enable deletion, and it would require new sites and apps to offer the same option.

Lastly — and this might be the key issue for parents — opponents of the law ask whether it teaches kids that they can act without thinking because it enables them to easily “erase” their mistakes.

And here’s another rub: While the eraser law would require that kids be able to delete their own posts, it does not regulate posts that are shared, captured in a screenshot or forwarded by others. These secondary posts cannot be deleted without infringing on the First Amendment rights of other users. So, as a teen might put it, the post is gone, but not gone gone. Some version will live on in cyber-memory.

Despite these critiques, Common Sense Media sees the online eraser law as the “first of its kind” and part of a larger national trend. Other states have already followed suit, with similar bills introduced in Illinois and New Jersey. And on a federal level, the Do Not Track Kids Act of 2013 was introduced in Congress on Nov. 14 last year. This amendment to COPPA would enhance online protection for kids and teens, and it also includes an “eraser button” provision.

“The law is by no means a fix-all, but it is an important step in the right direction for sites and services that are directed to young users,” Common Sense’s Lupovitz says.

The ultimate gatekeepers: Mom and Dad

Regardless of the online eraser law, parental education and supervision are still the best ways to protect minors online. Parents can help their children stay safe and responsible in the digital world by following these tips:

•  Get involved. Show interest in what your kids like to do online, and participate in activities like watching videos or playing games.

•  Talk to your kids about what’s appropriate to post online — and what isn’t. Discuss the consequences of improper posts, including the impact it can have on college and work opportunities.

•  Discuss next steps. If your teen does post something inappropriate or runs into other problems online, make sure they know what to do. Encourage them to come to you or another trusted adult.

•  Be vigilant. Put the family computer in a well-trafficked area of the house, such as the living room. Don’t let your kids lock themselves and their computers up in the bedroom, where you can’t keep an eye on what they’re doing.

•  Teach safety. Stress to your kids the importance of not sharing passwords or other personal information — including their address, phone number and Social Security number — with anyone online.

While legislation like California’s online eraser law isn’t perfect, it can help empower families to work together to guarantee kids’ online privacy and safety now and in the future. Here’s to hitting “save” on that goal.

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