Most states allow someone to expunge his or her record of being arrested or convicted for a crime committed as a minor. The idea is simple: You can reclaim your innocence as an adult after a youthful indiscretion. Coming of age earns you a clean slate, a presumption of probity.
In September, California approved a law that applies the idea to what teenagers often post on social media. It requires websites to let teens delete images or words they have come to regret and that might be used against them if they apply for college, a job, a mortgage, or a credit card.
Other states, such as New Jersey and Utah, now have similar legislation pending. And last week, a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced a bill in Congress, known as the Do Not Track Kids Act, that would extend the concept nationwide.
The federal bill would not only prohibit Web companies from collecting personal information from teens under 16 without their consent, but it would also create an “erase button” to let them delete embarrassing content from a site where it was posted. (For technical reasons, the law does not extend to copies of content that end up on other sites or other people’s computers.)
Such measures are well timed. Most teenagers now have smart phones, which allow easier access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, and similar sites. The number of teens who worry about Internet privacy has jumped to 43 percent from 35 percent last year. And many more teens may now regret their digital footprints, which helps account for the popularity of Snapchat. Users of that site can send a photo to a friend and have it disappear for good within seconds.
Young people may welcome laws that help them better navigate their evolving use of the Internet as they mature and wish to expunge previous postings, e-mails, or text messages. Many sites already allow such deletions, but the law would ensure they happen.
Another approach to the problem, now gaining ground in some states, is to bar employers from using old personal data in hiring decisions. And a few public schools are debating whether to start teaching proper ethics and etiquette in the use of social media.
A minor’s mistakes on the Web should not follow them into adulthood, just as the criminal record of a teen can be sealed for good. Being able to erase a past error has long been society’s way to support an individual’s redemption.