While growing up, most of us thought, said, and did reprehensible things. Some of us more than others, but all of us nonetheless. To deny this is to deny that leaves are green, clouds are white, and the sky is blue. But it was our great fortune that most of our childhood blunders faded from existence, kept alive only in human memory.
But it is the children of this generation's great misfortune that their mistakes are cemented in data centers and are indexed by search engines for speedy retrieval. They are growing up in a time when everyone carries a smartphone, none of which are without a high-powered camera and gigabytes of memory. It’s no wonder then, that so many of their missteps and misspeaks and miss-posts are captured forever.
If their mistake happens to go viral, then they are accused by strangers over the internet of all sorts of terrible things, often judged by the standards of adult behavior, which even our criminal justice system has the good sense not to do. Sometimes they are expelled from schools, their scholarships revoked, and their opportunities shrunk. Here are only a few cases out of the many.
The first is Alexi McCammond, who was recently hired, and then resigned as the Editor of the Teen Vogue magazine. A few of her tweets had resurfaced from 2011, when she was a teenager. There was a tremendous public outcry against her and she was all but forced to give up her position.
Next there is Billie Eilish, the pop superstar, who was raked over the coals for a video in 2013 when she lip-synched to insensitive lyrics.
Next, there was the case of 2 teenagers in high school who created a racist Tik Tok video and were expelled from school.
Next, there was a Tik Tok star, whose messages were leaked, in which she used some slurs. She was 15 at the time. She was taken to task and made an apology video which is disturbing to watch. She looks like she is in a terrible situation. No doubt she’s been affected by the mountain of hate she received, which, by the way, was sent by people who were defending the world against the hateful things she previously wrote. The irony must have walked past them.
And lastly there is me. I haven’t been the target of an internet mob yet, but I surely would, if people knew what I said and did when I was 12.
We adults need to remember what it was like to be a kid or teenager. You didn’t know right from wrong. You said mean things. You were rude. You were despicable. You were in the process of growing up and were learning from mistakes.
This isn’t to say that actions shouldn’t have consequences or that punishment should be held back for younger people. It is simply to acknowledge the new pressure they live with, in which poor choices become permanent baggage because of the internet. It is also to recognize that every great and noble person in history who we may respect and celebrate today has likely done something or said something, particularly when they were young, that we would condemn or at the very least, find distasteful. So much of their errors have been lost to history, since they did not have the internet, but people today do not have this luxury.
It is very important that we treat younger people with charity, especially in regards to their online contributions. I don’t think they should be burdened for the rest of their life because of an offensive Tik Tok video or off-color Facebook post, particularly if they have apologized for their behavior and made an effort to change. Not only would this prevent unnecessary suffering, it would also ensure that our youth are willing to play with controversial ideas and take risks. After all it is from them that new art, innovative technology, and new social norms are produced.
We should also simultaneously encourage children and teenagers to exercise extreme caution when posting online. They should be warned that old dirt can always resurface on the internet, usually at the worst possible time, like when they have achieved success or entered the public spotlight for some reason. There is no need to carve one's stupidity into the stone of the internet at such an early age. Leave that to the adults.
It is easy and often cathartic to harshly judge someone's egregious mistake. It gives us a momentary sense of power and virtue over them. But ultimately we must decide whether we want to create a society in which people are not ruined by their mistakes, but can grow from them.