Should Kids Have A 'Right To Be Forgotten' Online?

Every day, millions of pictures and posts go up online detailing the adventures of parents with their offspring. Should those kids have the right for those posts to be expunged?

Family picture from Shutterstock

In the UK, there's a move afoot to give children the right to have any and all posts they've created deleted, in line with the general EU "Right To Be Forgotten" law. The BBC reports on the "iRights" campaign here, which aims to push forward a proposal to allow children to "easily edit or delete all content they have created."

I'm a parent, and I have a rather particular position on this kind of thing, although when I mention that in the context of being a technology writer, a lot of people get surprised by it.

You see, I think it's an excellent concept, but one that should perhaps have even more scope than that. Most people seem to think that because I'm pro-technology that I'd be aghast at controlling or limiting it in some way. Technology is great, don't get me wrong, but people and privacy are far more important.

I'm rather passionate about privacy online in general, but especially when it relates to young people. No, I'm not young any more, and that does worry me somewhat, although the upside is that I'm saving a fortune on combs.

Children are, if you'll pardon the rather obvious statement, children. They don't have the relevant critical faculties to determine risk at an "adult" level, although it's also fair to point out that some adults lack that kind of faculty as well. Some people just never grow up, I suppose. As such, though, there is, I think, a very solid argument to allow them to experiment online in a safe way that allows for mistakes -- and they will make mistakes, because making mistakes is part of growing up -- that don't have to live in a permanent way.

I'm old enough that I can remember a world pre-Internet as it exists now -- which is to say, before the widespread adoption of global networks, because I'm not quite that old. I was a kid then, and I did stupid things, some of them around my friends. If they'd had cameras, they would have captured them, because, hey, funny is easy to come by when your friends are doing daft things. These days, those stupid kid stumbles would end up online, and while they might be worrying for me in a teenager sense, the prospect of them lasting forever is significantly more worrying.

It's why while I haven't banned my kids from Internet access, I am careful with controls on what they can and can't do, and I take a reasonable amount of time to check in with what they're doing. That's a physical check; while there are software monitoring tools, I'd much rather be involved in a discussion with them about what they do online than rely on a big-brother style solution that could either be circumvented or give out false positive blocks for innocent activities. Only one of my kids is on Facebook, and that's because she's now a teenager and I figure it's appropriate for her to be allowed to do so.

I often put this point to other parents who post widely about their kids on Facebook and similar social networks, and they're usually either comfortable with it -- which is fine, parenting attitudes can vary and I'm cool with that -- or they figure that their Facebook accounts are "private" so it "won't be a problem".

I'm fine with parents with different privacy attitudes to mine, but the idea that just because you throw it behind Facebook's current privacy wall is "enough" is, frankly, laughable. Once you throw data up on Facebook (or any other social network, blog, site or online resource) you explicitly lose control of it. Your friends could screen capture it, Facebook may well store it for its own or government mandated purposes, and ultimately, it could make changes to its privacy setup that makes your account, and by association all those pictures of little Jimmy and his little jimmy in the bath entirely public.

For my own purposes, I'm quite defensive about my children's online privacy, not just because I'm a somewhat private person, but also because I want them to be able to build their own online identities, rather than have one built up for them through years of Facebook baby photos, posts about the times that they misbehaved and all the rest. I've written about this previously, and been interviewed by SBS' The Feed about it.

Ultimately, though, while it would be nice to have some kind of legislative framework to rest on to make it easier to protect our privacy online, there's only one way to do it, and that's not to post anything at all online. That's not a great option in an online world, and obviously it does depend on how comfortable you are "living" online. I have friends who let it all hang out, and others who are far more comfortable essentially lurking in the shadows.

I'm fine with both positions. I think it's a personal choice. The thing about choices is that they need to be informed. Children don't have the full faculties to make those kinds of choices, and making them willy-nilly on their behalf is, I think, a poor choice as well.


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