Erikka Askeland: Twitter folly could have silver lining

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To BE young is to be a bit foolish. So, it is hard not to feel sympathy for Paris Brown, the 17-year-old forced to stand down this week as a youth police commissioner after being pilloried for posting dodgy social media messages that came back to haunt her.

It is a lesson for all, but what kind of lesson is it? Don’t write anything on Twitter you wouldn’t shout out in a crowded street. Or better: don’t type on Facebook – or any other website – what you wouldn’t put down on paper and tape to your forehead for everyone to see. This is good, sensible advice. You are welcome. Unlike tweeting, hardly anyone feels compelled to walk around with graffiti attached to their face. Nor are teenagers always sensible. I should know, I was one once.

It is true that Paris’s Twitter feed revealed she had used objectionable language, demeaning to gays, travellers and abusive to foreign pizza delivery men. What is unclear is how far back they go. The journalist who dug them up claims they were made in the past six months, but Paris and others insist that some messages stretch back to when she was 14.

What is clear is that our use of social media is still in its infancy, and the impact it will have on social norms in the future is uncertain.

Adults who should have known better have certainly fallen foul of sending an inappropriate tweet. But, in the main, these have been politicians, thus no-one should really be surprised by evidence of self-aggrandisement, shoddy thinking and buffoonery. And if an elected member hasn’t yet caused a Twitter storm, it is probably only by the grace of the much savvier young media adviser they employ to tweet on their behalf.

But imagine teenagers having the same scrutiny applied to their posts as politicians do. I was lucky, in that I grew up in an era when all the rash, ill thought-out and mean-spirited things I said were not logged on my permanent record. But Paris and her ilk are what is known as “digital natives”. They have accessed the internet through PCs, then laptops, then smartphones since they were old enough to sit upright. For them, social media is second nature. As Paris tellingly said in a tearful interview after her “twindiscretions” emerged: “You just think: I am annoyed [and] tweet.”

This unthinking use of social media by young people can have terrible consequences. In the US, a gang of boys in Steubenville, Ohio, were recently imprisoned for rape. But not only were they guilty of a heinous crime, they had also thought nothing of snapping a photograph of the assault with a smartphone and sending it to their mates.

In a similarly disturbing case in Canada, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after a sustained cyber-bullying campaign. She, too, had been sexually assaulted at a drunken teenage party two years earlier and then shamed when a phone-snapped picture of the attack was passed around her school.

When evidence of criminal behaviour is widely shared between friends on networks to snigger over, what hope is there for the likes of Paris – or any other digital native who wants to get a job one day?

Some have suggested that Kent Police, which hired Paris, should have checked their star commissioner’s Twitter feed before they did so. But such social media audits are not currently common practice for employers – not yet anyway.

Perhaps 18-year-olds should be given the choice of being able to drop the digital equivalent of a nuclear bomb on their social media profiles in order to start afresh, with all embarrassing adolescent misdemeanours blotted out.

But erasing your digital tracks is notoriously difficult. And even if an offending tweet or Facebook post is deleted, there is often a remnant that can be dredged up from the internet’s dark innards.

But maybe it is not all dire. Perhaps this unabashed use of social media could usher in a new age of radical honesty, where it is normal to be awkward, stupid and weird. We all have off days. And if the behaviour is beyond the pale, then the horrible things people do will be more transparent and possible to be corrected – a lesson learned.