Gone are the days when embarrassing photos of our awkward teenage years only came out when mum passed them around at the 21st. Thanks to social media those photos can haunt us for the rest of our lives.
What goes on social media platforms is forever taking our past out of our control.
Associate Professor Kate Eichhorn told Jesse Mulligan in the digital age anonymity is barely an option for most children.
“I read a few years ago one estimate that most kids have at least a thousand photographs on some digital platform by the time they enter kindergarten. I think it's fair to say that many children have far more photographs than that in some kind of digital repository.”
Professor Eichhorn warns about the dangers that emerge when young adults can't escape the missteps of youth in her new book The End of Forgetting: Growing up with Social Media.
"When I first started working on this book I was thinking about calling it perpetual childhood. I was thinking a lot about how horrifying it is that something that people of my generation, I grew up in 70s and 80s, something that we took for granted was that once you were an adult you could pretty much forget your childhood or adolescence and only carry forward those things you decided to carry forward, and you could often embellish them in ways that were to your advantage.”
That natural transition to adulthood is no longer a possibility, she says. Largely as result of digital photography.
“The only analogue that we have to instant digital photography is the Polaroid. But unlike digital photographs, Polaroids are actually one of a kind documents they share more in common with a painting in some respects than they do with a digital photograph because they can't be reproduced,” she says.
The moment of taking a photograph and the moment of circulation and broadcasting have now merged, Professor Eichhorn says.
“Erick Erickson, a psychoanalyst who is writing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, argued that most societies have what he described as a psycho social moratorium and it wasn't a moratorium on experiences; it was a moratorium on consequences.”
In other words, in the past when we messed up as children, we got a second chance as adults. We are now seeing adults paying a very high price for youthful misdeeds, she says.
Kyle Kashuv, one of the children who survived the shootings in Parkland Florida, is an example, Professor Eichhorn says.
“Prior to the shooting at Parkland, a couple of years before that happened he had been working on a homework assignment with his peers, which is very common. Students working on a homework assignment using a shared Google doc and Kyle had made a series of very offensive racist comments.”
After the shooting Kashuv gained prominence as a conservative advocate for gun ownership and those early racist remarks came back to haunt him.
“He realised he should probably go back and do some damage control, so he went back into that document from two years earlier and had erased his racist comments.
“Of course his peers knew they were there, easily found them because once something's in a Google doc you can always just go back to an earlier version, and when he was accepted to Harvard they shared that google doc, and when Harvard found out they took away his acceptance. So he's paid a very high consequence already for his racist speech. “
Although his comments were reprehensible, he has not had a chance to grow or learn, she says.
“On the one hand I look at that situation and think it's really great that his admission to Harvard was taken away. On the other hand, you're saying to young people actually you don't have any room to grow. You don't have any space to change as you get older and I think that that can be quite dangerous.”
Curtailing the ability to move on from childhood mistakes could inculcate excessive caution in the young, she says.
“My observation is that this could go one of two ways; either young people will stop taking risks and become incredibly cautious and I think that that is a loss. On the other hand, if they don't, they'll also pay a very high price for mistakes or embarrassing moments that in the past people just would have forgotten about.”
The chance to reinvent our selves as we move into adulthood is also limited by the online lives young people carry forward into adulthood, she says.
“When students arrived on campus in the 80s or in the 90s they would stay in touch with some friends from the city or town they came from, but they could be very selective about what part of their social network they carried forward.
“Today when young people arrive on a university campus their social network from elementary school middle school and high school is still intact.
“So all those friends that they've been accumulating online over the years, they just move with them. To give you a concrete example; if kids coming from let's say, a small town in America where you know it is very difficult to come out as a gay or lesbian or transgender person and they move to a city, in the past they could sort of reinvent themselves.”
Reputation management, once the preserve of celebrities and politicians, is now a fact of life for young people she says.
“If you talk to most young people, tweens and teens, they already know that they should be thinking about the difference between the profile that they share with their friends and the other public profile that recruiters from colleges or future job recruiters are going to look at.
“And I think it's kind of sad that they have to be so obsessed with reputation management at such a young age.”
And it is in the interests of social media companies to capture as much data as possible about young people, she says.
“There is a particular reason why young people finally have access to the tools needed to represent their lives and circulate images of their lives. And that's because private companies can profit from their data. So I think we need to bear in mind the fact that the real problem here is really capitalism more than anything else.”
And any reputational damage that might damage an individual later in life is never going to be a concern for the digital giants, she says.
“Children and adolescents have a lot of free time, they have a lot more time often than adults to generate the data needed to drive profits in these companies.
“So when people ask me what is the solution I wouldn't look to tech companies to be particularly collaborative in finding a solution to this broader problem.”
Already in America those with the means are paying to clean up their digital past, she says.
People who have a lot of money will pay ten or fifteen thousand dollars American to at least have websites that make their child look good come up first in any search, they actually have really embarrassing and incriminating photographs and videos deleted it and I think moving forward we will see a greater monetisation of forgetting, just as we've already seen commoditisation of memory.”