Belfast Telegraph

Kids of today are lucky to be able to erase youth

By Grace Dent

It's a rare thing for me to envy the young having experienced youth – and it was mainly a beastly business, awash with unwise crushes, bad hair and too much time in Top Shop.

However, a new California law coming into force in 2015 and focusing on internet regulation acknowledges the fickleness of youth and offers kids a boost we never had: the digital eraser.

As we cajole our kids to document every moment online, it's only fair, the bill suggests, that we make Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and other such services offer young adults a fresh start.

The measure requires websites to give underage users tools to permanently delete text, photo and video postings from sites; a Year Zero-style clean-out upon reaching the age of 18. If only I could have rounded up my past in a binliner at 18 and set it alight. How lovely if, aged 18, following a short button-pressing ceremony, I was officially no longer a twerp.

That said, gathering evidence of my youthful idiocy would take the sort of crowd of earnest, virginal archivers that Who Do You Think You Are? employ.

Today's youth have laid their lives bare, at the click of a mouse, and without doubt, have now become bolder, braver and more showmanlike. To my mind, they need saving from themselves.

Those tweets threatening to disembowel Harry Styles's new girlfriend? Gone. That rash of slightly alarming far-Right, or communist, babblings on Facebook during some bored, overly hormonal weekend in 2009? Deep-cleaned and vamoosed.

That weekend in 2008, when it seemed a fantastic idea to call for jihad, or launch one's rap career with some songs glorifying rape? Those sickies from Saturday jobs simply removed from all future employers' sight?

During the London riots, I was tormented online by a young lad sending the usual filth with the added bonus of telling me he knew where I lived. A bit of fishing not only brought up his address, his full name and his date of birth, but his sixth-form project on electricity pylons and a number of earnest letters written to local papers on the matter.

I often think of this seemingly normal young man, who on his worst days left an internet footprint of hideous messages to me and on better days documented himself as a pylon obsessive.

We need to either give young people the chance to start again, or thwart their chance to prosper. This is a curiously touching and empathetic bill, which may never spread further than California. But Google's Eric Schmidt voiced his concern that some young people had to live with the consequences of having a complete record of their past.

"We have never had a generation with a full photographic, digital record of what they did," he said, before adding: "Society has always had ways of dealing with errant teenagers", by a natural process of punishment and being allowed to grow up away from their mistakes. "They grow up out of it and become fine, upstanding leaders."

Of course, how well an internet eraser would wash away the past is debatable. Once a message is posted and someone has grabbed it and stored it, the ball is out of your court. Once a message has entered the deep, dark world of internet storage, there is no "never to be seen again".

But I've been a young idiot and now I'm an older, slightly lesser idiot and the only way to let future generations grow and prosper is with kindness, with forgiveness, with empathy and by playing with the notion that on the web we all behave like we're on stage. We must also believe in second acts.

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