I’ve been writing up a paper on why there is no such thing as a ‘digital native’ and will post a preview later in the week. However, the Paris Brown story that the Daily Mail oh-so-eloquently printed this morning kind of acts as a case-in-point for some of the things I talk about, so I thought it would be worth a brief comment separate from the later piece.
You can read the story above (and it is worth it just to take a look at the comments from Mail readers) but to briefly explain, Paris Brown is a 17-year old who has been employed as ‘Youth Police Commissioner’ by Ann Barnes, the new Kent Police and Crime Commissioner. She is due to start the job next week but the Mail has uncovered some tweets sent from her Twitter account over the last couple of years that are offensive, appear to advocate drug-taking, and discuss drinking and sex. It has polarised opinion in news, social media, and politics as to whether she is a disgrace who should be vilified and sacked or a naive young girl who should be allowed to apologise and get on with her job and her life.
One of the big issues of interest outside the immediate story is how our past can come back to haunt us in the digital age. Over the last five years I have taught a module called Communication and Social Interaction and one of the questions I always asked my students was how aware they were of their ‘electronic footprint’ and how the things that they put online could impact upon their lives many years later – to be honest, the levels of naivety astonished me. I would say that the majority of students every year were not aware of the potential impacts of their on-line presence. Pictures of drunken antics, drunken tweets and Facebook posts (are you starting to see another trend here?), ill-conceived ranting emails – they don’t go away, they can remain out there in the electronic world just waiting to be found by accident or by those with an interest and ability in finding them.
I’m sure that people of my generation have had conversations in pubs, in private, to confidantes, that we would never wish to be made public; now imagine all of those slips, those ill-chosen words, those drunken rants hanging in the air around you as you wander around the world, available for all to see. Because that is what social media does, it provides a little cloud of your comments that can follow you anywhere. Can we expect a 15-year old to fully comprehend the enormity of this? To think that something you wrote two years ago to impress your mates, to try to be funny, to make yourself look good, could come back and completely wreck your life? There is no doubt that Paris Brown has let herself down – but so too would thousands upon thousands of young people if they were ever put in a position where someone may want to forensically go through their social media conversations.
And this is where we come in. When I say ‘we’ I mean teachers, parents, employers – society, basically. We need to be doing more to make young people aware of the implications of their social media use. To help them to consider what is appropriate, not just right now but for the future as well. Take email, for example: when students apply to UCAS they have to put down an email contact address. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘sexy-this’, ‘princess-that’ email addresses I have seen (ladies, you are not alone in this crime – the amount of male email addresses containing variations on ‘hot_stud’ is quite scary). Of course, in some cases we are the first ‘official’ entity many of them have come across when it comes to portraying themselves in a professional light and it can really show – they may have no idea how they should be portraying themselves. Taking control of your on-line persona and knowing how it can impact upon you and how best to portray yourself seems to me to be a fundamental lesson that parents and teachers should be teaching to young people.
Employers can play their part as well, and this is where Ann Barnes should have been more proactive with Paris Brown. Make sure that your potential employee is explicitly aware of your expectations of their on-line persona, not just in the future but in the past as well. Don’t just bury it on page 58 of the employee handbook, this stuff is far too important now to treat simply as another box to tick. This whole incident could have been avoided by simply making Miss Brown aware that her position had expectations of a certain type of view and behaviour and that, if possible, anything contrary to that stance should be removed as much as possible (delete the personal Twitter account, remove posts from Facebook, go through your pictures and make sure they are suitable for your position, etc.).
Make no bones about it, Paris Brown was an idiot… but so are lots of people. I can’t remember what I said when I was 16 years old but I’m pretty sure that some of it could come back to haunt me if looked at in a certain context; I doubt if many reading this could say any different. In all likelihood if it were possible to go back and forensically examine every person’s comments over the course of their life then there would probably be a lot of people not in their jobs. The difference is that these things tend to be written down and can remain ‘on file’ now. Should she be fired? If she is good at what she does now then no, not simply for being an idiot when she was younger. However, she is just a small but now, unfortunately for her, high-profile example; this is something that will continue to happen until we teach young people how to use social media carefully and with consideration for their future.
Edited @1742 on 7th April 2013 to include this link which makes a case in point on how colleges, universities and employees are starting to use social media searches as ‘fair game’
Edited @1547 on 9th April 2013 to include this link to the resignation of Paris Brown from the position, and this link to the statement by Ann Barnes, the commissioner who employed her. This doesn’t change anything that I have written here, in fact it highlights more than ever that young people need to be aware of the dangers that their social media past can create. As for Ann Barnes, it will be interesting to see what happens next. Her behaviour in creating the situation through not vetting Miss Brown for the job and then dragging her around the media outlets once the story broke should certainly be questioned. It appears that she does need a youth commissioner though, as she appears to have little understanding of young people’s lives…