Digital amnesty for the 17 year-olds!

Jon ButtrissOnline safety and social media management in schools is an important subject, especially with new e-safety guidelines coming into play this February. As teachers educate their students about the dangers of digital communication Jon Buttriss, CEO of BCS Learning & Development, looks at what opportunities there are to teach ethical and moral responsibilities.

Teachers should be helping their students mature with the technology around them - and understanding the need for e-safety is an important part of that.

It’s time we debate the idea of a social media amnesty for all 17-year-olds. Such an amnesty would allow for young people to have their profiles, images, updates and other personal information erased from social networks before they reach adulthood.

This concept has been around for a while and it’s gaining momentum. Facebook is already looking at the practicalities involved in such a practice.

In my opinion, children should be allowed to be childish. When you were at school, what personal or intimate thoughts did you scribble in your exercise book or homework diary? The difference is that 21st century children transfer their thoughts to social media. It’s unfair that, five or so years later, a potential employer can find an indiscreet picture or crass statement online and make a judgement about the adult candidate.

As someone well over 25 (!) I have almost complete control over revelations about my past. I can choose what people know about me, from bad haircuts and bands I obsessed over, to my politics and religious views. All of this information belongs to me; no employer, friend, government authority or marketing department can discover this information unless I want them to.

But today's young people live in a world where digital communication leaves a lasting digital footprint – and some digital communication is far from harmless. Sexting is serious and widespread; in 2014/15, ‘sexting’ was referenced in over 1,200 ChildLine counselling sessions (NSPCC, 2015).

So who is responsible for e safety? Helen Mathieson, an ex-headteacher and interim CEO of Salisbury Plain Academies, says, ‘It’s everybody: the individual, the parent, the school, the institution, the wider community and social government providers. No one should be able to hide on social media. We should all be responsible and accountable for what we write and how we impact on others. Individuals should have the protection of the law as it applies in all other areas.’

Y11 students at Rookwood School in Andover agree. Matthew (15) said: ‘Social media laws need tightening - some of the stuff that we see online shouldn't be there. If we went out into the street and shouted some of the things people say on social media we'd be arrested; why doesn't the law apply in all cases?’

Perhaps the best way to help our young people deal effectively with this ever-changing world is to nurture resilience and good decision-making so they can head off issues such as sexting before they become a problem.

Today, schools and teachers need to recognise that students use social media all the time, whether they should or not, and have to be taught about their digital footprint so they understand the need to do what they are doing responsibly.

There are many cases where students have been suspended and even expelled over negative Facebook posts made about teachers. Three years ago there was a storm of protest before a controversial ban was lifted that had prevented a nine-year-old girl from photographing her school meals.

It's another reason I believe an amnesty is a good idea. It would mean once a child reaches 18, their digital footprint would be erased and they could start their adult life afresh. It means children could be childish on social media without risking their future.

Given that few children are mature or knowledgeable enough to manage their data, many will have indiscretions and poor decisions mapped against their names and these are easily discoverable by something as simple as a Google search.

Even if young people try to hide or delete information from public view, as timelines have shown many of us, nuggets will pop up which we thought were buried or deleted. The point is, we humans mostly forget, but the servers don’t.

Short-term fix or long term gain, I think it's time the idea was given a proper airing and debated more thoroughly.

What do you think? Whose responsibility is online safety, and at what age should that responsibility start? For the month of February we will be placing thought provoking articles and commentary on our website: Or please join the conversation on Twitter @bcs using #BCSeducation.

Comments (3)

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  • 1
    David Kay wrote on 15th Feb 2016

    Seems a sensible idea to me.

    The whole concept of what is held and available about us to the rest of the world for the rest of time does need further debate.

    Unless it is an official record, why shouldn't the individual have the right to have it removed, especially if they did the posting?

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  • 2
    Greg Newman wrote on 24th Feb 2016

    Although this is a great idea, as a father of teenage daughters, I can't imagine them using it, other than in extreme cases where they have something really bad to hide.

    I can't imagine my kids making the transition from 6th form to university without a digital history.

    A more appealing option to them would be to have the option of rolling delete of history over that is at least two years old as here will likely be stuff out there from their early teens that they no longer want in their digital history.

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  • 3
    Eerke Boiten wrote on 26th Feb 2016

    Valid issue, but we need to be realistic about the scope of what is achievable. Even people over 25 do not have full control over what is visible about them on the internet, in some cases legal requirements make personal details visible to the world, and data protection based rights to deletion even in new legislation are not absolute.
    It is also unrealistic to bring sexting into this: where this leads to an unwanted spread of pictures etcetera it is not going to be through the young person's own social network profiles and hence resetting those doesn't help. If on other sites or others' areas, it may not be tagged in a way that allows easy deletion either. The amount of material that can be systematically detected and deleted (excluding social network content that people have under their own full control anyway) may not be large enough to make a useful contribution, unfortunately.

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Supporting the government’s ‘Digital by Default’ strategy we’re keen everyone has the skills and confidence to use IT. Here, we share thoughts on a variety of digital matters.

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February 2018