As the world changes and each individual’s digital footprint gets bigger and deeper, society is going to have to change and adapt. No longer will the foolishness of youth be washed away by the waves of time. Now every thought that you’ve ever had can live on, maintained in servers and clouds, crouched, waiting to destroy a mayoral campaign, a job interview, a relationship.
Let’s face a Truth- We are dumb when we are young.
I don’t mean our students are incapable or unable. And I don’t mean all the time. I mean there are things we say and do as adolescents and teens that defy logic, common sense, and right thinking. That’s part of the definition of being a child. Acting childish. There are things that I said, thought, and wrote that I am deeply grateful have been lost to the sands of time, the incomplete paper-only archives of my high school and college newspapers, and the MySpace wasteland.
Let’s not even begin to entertain the horror that would have been me in high school and college with access to a YouTube channel.
I have an overriding theory that kids today are exactly like kids yesterday or the day before were, just with more access. Some of them, at least. If I’m right, then kids today are making the same goofy choices I made, but they have the ability to document those choices forever on the Internet.
I have a suggestion. A fix. A solution. A thesaurus.
Your digital footprint gets completely wiped clean at 21.
I’m not talking about your entire history. Not your criminal record, which means (as soon as the law catches up to this) not internet hate crime/crime crime stuff, but everything else that’s digital. Every tweet you’ve ever twittered, every blog you’ve ever published, every Facebook status you’ve ever updated, every Gram you’ve ever insta’d, and every Snap you’ve ever chatted. Gone. Smoke in the wind.
I can hear the immediate “But Doug!” from some of you. “But Doug, if kids know that then they won’t put any kind of a filter on what they post! It’ll be anarchy!” Have you been online? It already is anarchy. Orwell never expected us to share everything this willingly.
This won’t stop us from teaching digital citizenship. It will give kids a training ground for how to behave online. The standards for behavior are different because you can’t hide in real life. You have to face consequences in real life that are still dodge-able online. So I propose one caveat to my brilliant plan- For this to work, anyone online under the age of 21 may not use any form of alias. Your username must be your name. Your profile picture must be your picture. You’re being watched and monitored outright and openly, not secretly like the rest of us. I don’t know how we’d program or enforce that, that’s not my department. I’m the ideas guy.
I’m already imagining the conversations we’re going to have to have in a few election cycles when my generation and the one directly after mine seriously starts competing for public office. Year-old tweets were dug up to bring down the guy replacing Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, a comedy program. Can you imagine what’s going to happen to the 17 year-old kid who just watched American Sniper, got riled up about it, and went on a 15-tweet ignorant screed to his 36 followers when he decides he wants to be a senator? How forgiving will the media be? How many people are going to raise their hand when his old tweets come up and say, “He was 17 and fired up. Of course he tweeted dumb stuff.” How many people are going to listen to that?
Teaching digital citizenship is already a balancing act. It’s a zone that feels like it should be simple to teach, but the rules are moving as new users define new boundaries. Having the things you said when you are a teenager be on your permanent record just doesn’t seem fair. Those are the years you should be fired up about everything and you should be learning to control that fire. Which means mistakes will be, should be, made. “Mistakes are where we learn.” I saw that on a meme once.
In the interest of student choice and posterity, I suggest students be allowed to decide what goes and what stays on that magic Day ‘o Deletion. School projects, writing pieces, movies, and so on will not be removed without student consent. I’ll even allow a six month cooling off period, so at 21 a person could say, “All of this is sacrosanct and you shall touch none of it!” and then at 21 and a half they could reread and reconsider and maybe allow mom to throw out some of their old work before anyone else gets to see it.
It’s not a coincidence that your digital footprint resets the same year you’re legally allowed to drink. You’re adult enough to make that choice, be adult enough to live with those consequences too. I’ll get to my brilliant idea of a phone that requires a breathalyzer before you’re allowed to tweet, text, or call some other time.
Erase everyone’s digital footprint at age 21. Note that I’m not saying not to punish bad behavior before 21. Mean, hurtful, disrespectful, awful things should be taken care of. Freedom of speech has never meant freedom from consequences, and that needs to be taught too. Correct bad behavior now, when the user is young.
Then, at 21, everyone gets a clean slate. We forgive Stupid Kid stuff but we also expect you to have learned to act correctly. Have empathy for childish mistakes in children, but also teach them what those mistakes are and how to be better.
Doug Robertson is the CUE blog editor and a tenth-year teacher currently talking at fifth graders in Northern Oregon. He’s taught in California, Hawaii, and Oregon in 3rd, 4th, and 6th grades. He’s the author of two books about education, He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome) and an active blogger. Doug speaks at teaching conferences including CUE Rock Star Teacher Camps, presenting on everything from technology to teaching philosophy (or teaching The Weird Way, to use his words). Doug is also the creator and moderator of #WeirdEd on Twitter, which happens every Wednesday at 7pm PST.