Family Privacy

A Morning-after Pill for the Digital Age Underage

September 26, 2013

The Los Angeles Times reported on September 23 California governor Jerry Brown’s approval of SB-568, a new law “giving young people the ability to remove embarrassing information they post on

The Los Angeles Times reported on September 23 California governor Jerry Brown’s approval of SB-568, a new law “giving young people the ability to remove embarrassing information they post on Internet social networking sites.” This makes California the first state to require Facebook and other social networking websites to provide minors with a mechanism for removing content they post, including text, images, and videos. Moreover, when the law goes into effect on January 1, 2015, websites will be required to post this right of removal, together with “clear instructions” for removal.

From 1945 to 1969, Art Linkletter, a broadcasting personality from television’s “Golden Age,” hosted a tremendously popular show (first on radio, then on TV) called Kids Say the Darndest Things. Basically, avuncular Art asked a line-up of three-to-eight-year-old kids a question, and each would chime in with a cute—often innocently naughty—answer, to which Linkletter would react by mugging in a cute avuncular way.

It was all very cute because kids are cute. That’s why they say the darndest things. They are unfiltered. They respond to adult questions with a childish honesty that moralists call “innocence” and psychologists call “impulsivity.”

Of course, Linkletter, his writers, and the network censors never allowed anything actually hurtful or scandalous to be broadcast. And nothing a sub-nine-year-old says could be truly embarrassing in any case. But what happens when kids post the darndest things on interactive media that is without host, editor, or censor? And what happens when the kids are, say, twelve, fourteen, eighteen years old? And maybe the darndest thing involves something sorta-kinda illegal (like drug use), or maybe immoral (like cheating on the SAT), or possibly naked (like without clothes).

What then?

Everyone knows that three-year-olds and eight-year-olds have difficulty controlling their impulses. Art Linkletter knew it, and it certainly doesn’t take a neuroscientist to tell us. More recently, however—long after both Linkletter and his show have passed into the ether–neuroscience has provided ample evidence that impulsivity and “immature” judgment are natural characteristics of the human brain during its most “plastic” period of development, which is not limited by the bounds of infancy, toddlerhood, or even early childhood, but reaches well into a person’s late twenties or even early thirties.

Teenagers in particular are capable of saying, showing, and doing some downright destructive things. This is true offline and online—but online, the technology of the Internet can readily amplify, ramify, and solidify even the most apparently fleeting of impulsive acts. The utterances of Linkletter’s cute kids are faded memories of anonymous cuteness—most are utterly vanished. The products of teenage impulse, however, can have a potentially unlimited shelf-life on the Internet. And if the college admissions officer or the corporate recruiter turns up a five-year-old post about shoplifting, or drug taking, or exam stealing, the outcome will be anything but cute.

So any law that gives a do-over to the youthful owner of a naturally impulsive brain connected to an inevitably unforgiving technology is a good thing. Mostly.

Having the legally enforceable ability to delete an impulsive post or pic is better than not having it. Mostly.

The most popular brand of the so-called Morning-after pill (a form of emergency contraception intended to disrupt or delay ovulation after unprotected sex) is called Plan B for a good reason. It is meant to be used only if Plan A (either abstinence or conventional preventative contraception) was not. By definition, a Plan B is an inferior substitute for a Plan A. If the airplane’s engine (Plan A) fails, the pilot resorts to a parachute (Plan B). It is not nearly as good. Moreover, the existence of a parachute (Plan B) is not an adequate reason to get into an airplane without checking the engine (Plan A).

If California SB 568 gives children and their parents the feeling that they are now at long last in complete control of impulsive Internet postings, they are mistaken. The law requires a website operator to “Permit a minor . . . to remove . . . content or information [he or she] posted on the . . . Web site.” The do-over does not extend to what any other Internet user may have done with the content or information before it was removed. The law does not prevent a third party from posting it, even on the same website from which it was removed. In other words, your Facebook page may be clean, but one, ten, a thousand others may feature that portrait you captioned Selfie with Really Big Bong.

Website operators are also permitted to retain content that has been anonymized “so that the minor . . . cannot be individually identified,” and if the minor “has received compensation or other consideration for providing the content,” the website owner is under no obligation to allow its deletion. (“Other consideration”? What’s that?) The bottom line is what the bottom line has always been: once posted, your data—whatever it may be—is no longer exclusively yours.

The new law improves the odds of actually erasing an impulsive mistake, but it is far, very far, from a guaranteed do-over. Be therefore thankful for Plan B, ye kids, but stick to Plan A. That means: don’t post anything anywhere on the Internet that you don’t want to be seen, read, and savored by your parents, your teachers, your employers, and, for that matter, anyone anywhere for all time to come.

September 26, 2013