Last week a young contestant on a British reality TV show was left humiliated after producers chose to remove him from the program’s Australian jungle setting after just a couple of days. Their reason? Tweets and social media messages sent in 2011, when the vlogger was in his teens.
Now let’s be clear, the things that Jack Maynard said were unpalatable and offensive. They are not acceptable sentiments in any scenario, and certainly not from someone with a YouTube reach of several million and an incredible leverage over (predominantly) teenage girls. Nevertheless, watching a young man’s fledgling media career left in tatters should prompt us to sharpen our focus on an increasingly important question: in our hyperconnected era, to what extent can we punish and pillory the adult for the sins of the teen?
It is worth remembering that, traditionally, we give naughty children and tear-away teens some extra slack, and in many progressive jurisdictions under 18s are treated more leniently by the law. In the UK, custodial sentences are a last resort for those aged between 10-17, more heed is paid to the fact that deviant acts may be a “phase”, and courts are advised to avoid “criminalizing” young people. Critically, decisions about the poor behavior of young people acknowledge that they can be naïve, and judgments strive to contain damaging ramifications that could prevent the individual blossoming into a perfectly decent and productive member of society.
This makes sense to most of us. After all, which one of us managed to progress to adulthood without saying or doing something they’re deeply embarrassed or ashamed of? How many of those things can we even remember, given our tendency to don rose-colored spectacles and reimagine an untainted edit of our “playful” youth? Those of us who did most of their maturing in the pre-internet era at least have that privilege. The nasty or strange things we said and did were verbal, or written on pieces of paper that have long since disappeared. Those born into Generation Z (or just before) – like Jack Maynard – are doomed to be held responsible as adults for the same indiscretions.
I am proposing that if we are willing to forgive young people for the occasional faux pas when they are learning their place in the world (and I’m assuming we are, provided it is not something grave or unsettling), then we should ensure that this forgiveness carries forward into adulthood. If a 15 or 16-year-old boy asks a member of his peer group for nude photographs, we should remember that these are the actions of the boy, not the 23-year-old man who stands before us when the behavior comes to light.
If this seems trivial, then we should consider that young people now are constantly connected. Most of their hopes, dreams, likes, dislikes, and many pictures of their bodies are already laid out on the internet where they will remain forever. All of their off-hand comments, forays into swearing, their use of politically incorrect language; in short, all of their juvenile idiocy is already documented. For many it could come back and bite them very hard on the behind.
So, what’s the solution? Well I can think of two, though it’s becoming clear that first is rather futile; that is, to remind teens that for all its brilliance, social media and the internet is very exposing. It takes notes, and the way we all behave now will echo forever in cyberspace. For some, this may be affective. A fear of the internet could well function like a fear in god, and Generation Z might blossom into paragons of online virtue. It is probably worth a try, and schools and parents are already at it.
My second thought concerns all of us. Together we are society, and we get to decide how much emphasis we lay on misdemeanors from long ago. Collectively, we can choose to ignore the ugly parts of a young person’s social snail trail – and that would be my personal preference. Just as our non-criminal sins evaporated behind us, so too should we ensure that current and future generations have the same “wriggle room” to muck up and get away with it. Otherwise the chilling effect may cripple their development in ways we are yet to understand.
Everyone should be allowed to make non-grievous mistakes. Sometimes those things will be uncomfortable for us to accept, but we don’t have to accept the acts themselves. All we have to accept is that young people – especially teenagers – don’t get everything right first time, and from there we can, in good conscience, intentionally disregard social media errors made by those who did not have the rights of adulthood at the time.