Paris Brown, 17 years old, and in many respects a typical teenager. She gave an engaging performance on BBC Breakfast recently as she was unveiled as the country’s first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner. However, the maelstrom which engulfed the unfortunate Paris following this announcement captures well the challenges of growing up in today’s world.
Unfortunately for Paris she had committed what appears to be the ultimate sin in our digital age. She had shared with Twitter, when younger, thoughts which were very stupid and for which she was lambasted by the national media and an assorted group of people in public life quick to admonish the teenager. Keith Vaz, no less, Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, demanded she stepped down from her post instantly.
Not for a moment do I condone Paris’s Tweets, however, as someone who has observed teenagers in a school setting, dare I say that they can be very, very stupid. The benefit of a school community is that mistakes can be made. And the average teenager will make mistakes. The key is that they learn from it and move on.
The contrition expressed by Paris appeared genuine to me and if she had made her comments in the real world she rightly would have been strongly chastised. To make racist or homophobic comments is unacceptable – end of. Sadly for Paris, Tweets posted when she was younger were deemed to have defined her and were ergo unforgivable.
Is it the unintended consequence of the social media age that the previously ephemeral mistakes of the teenage years, the careless or thoughtless comments which would not bear scrutiny in the adult world, are now indelibly stamped on an individual’s identity forever? If this is indeed the case, we have reached a watershed moment. It is not only the young who need to learn a lesson from the tragic rise and fall of Paris Brown. So too do those of us who did not grow up with social media. It is difficult for me to appreciate the lure of the virtual world which is all too real to young people. Whether it is Twitter or Facebook, their digital life is as important as their life in the real world. Their engagement is total and self-censorship minimal.
In school, we see this played out in the youngsters’ everyday lives. Bad behaviour which in the past was the preserve of the school playground has migrated to the digital world where it takes on a new power. Schools are required now to have a policy on cyberbullying which is designed to address a digital version of sadly predictable behaviour, aimed to support the victim. Yet it is arguable that the perpetrator is creating a digital footprint which could well come back to haunt them in their adult life.
As employers and universities increasingly trawl the web for an insight into the virtual world of individuals, it strikes me that we need to take a view on a life lived in a digital age.
I think we can take it as a given that a typical teenager will at some point post something on social media which is regrettable. Surely in the adult world we should be capable of taking account of context. The uncensored thoughts of someone when growing up may or may not reveal the best about that individual. But given the journey of life, we must allow for maturity and life experiences to act upon and more than likely change an individual’s character.
So let us use the cautionary tale of Paris Brown as a sanity check. For sure, schools are doing their bit to educate young people about the pitfalls of the digital world and the notion of a digital footprint. Yet, youngsters will nonetheless make mistakes which is part of growing up. It behoves adults to understand this – by doing so we are demonstrating a proper understanding of the digital age.
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