Permanent Records

An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by

Kids are uploading their adolescence in real-time, and the Internet refuses to forget. Will it change the way we live as adults?

One of the most common reasons adults give for not wanting to get a tattoo is that they might be horrified, later, by what they decided when they were young. When you're 60, do you really want to be reminded of what you thought was cool when you were 19? To them, permanently committing to an image or idea will almost certainly haunt you when you're older. To me, it's that commitment to the present that makes tattoos so appealing — making decisions based on what you might regret when you're 60 seems like a weird way to live your life. But I'm supposed to be embarrassed that I loved something so hard I got it pressed into my skin forever, especially if my feelings change with time.

When I look at my middle school students post photos and videos of themselves online, I have the instinctual reaction of adult horror at the evidence they are creating. And I’m not alone: There is a great deal of anxiety and panic about young people and the Internet-- how their social media accounts will haunt their college applications, their job searches, their presidential campaigns. According to the Pew Research Center report “Teens, Social Media and Privacy,” data from 2012 showed that 95 percent of young people age 12-17 use the Internet, with 81 percent of those using social media. About three in four use it daily. The public sphere created by the Internet is ubiquitous, inescapable, normalized. Maybe it's okay that they're posting such ridiculous photos of themselves because there will be no one to run for president who hasn't. But it's not just college bros playing beer pong who need to clean up their Facebook when they graduate. We're years beyond that. As it stands now, when the 13-year-olds I teach grow into adulthood, much of their lives will be immortalized on the Internet -- their cute kid pictures, their self-made Youtube videos, their proudly documented performances and speeches. Their entire adolescence will be on the record.

One of the greatest difficulties between young people and adult people, of course, is that adult people have a hard time remembering exactly what it's like to be young. Spending time with my partner's mother recently, we found an essay she wrote when she was 15 or 16 -- we laughed at the bravado of her prose, but were also moved by her passion and idealism. Typed on a typewriter, on yellowed paper, unseen for decades, it was the most teenage thing ever. She was amazed at revisiting her poetic younger self. And even though much less time has passed for me, I'm sure I would be unsettled to re-read something that I wrote in high school. It would be like emotional time travel.

That physical distance from our youth is integral to how adults conceptualize themselves, both publicly and privately. Certainly, any adult who came of age before the prominence of social media has artifacts from their childhood that can jog memory — videos, photos, letters, journals, t-shirts, record collections, mixtapes. But those adults can also afford to speak generally; they can say, for example, “seventh grade was miserable,” and back up their statement with a yearbook. But unless they kept a meticulous diary, it's unlikely that there's a textual record of how it played out on a day-to-day basis. That distance is convenient for the public people whose seventh grade poetry is not indexed by Google. It's also convenient for the ego, which is fine with admitting that they had a hard time but would rather not remember every detail of the emotional struggle.

A seventh grader today, when they're 30, might say “seventh grade was miserable.” That seventh grader currently has dozens or hundreds or thousands of pictures of themselves on Instagram or Twitter or (decreasing in popularity, for teens) Facebook. They have passive aggressive Tweets, posts, and comments about who has wronged them or pissed them off throughout the year — in the early days of IM, teens were known to print out incriminating conversations, now screenshots are easier. They or their parents may have posted videos of their dance concert or middle school debate night. Their song lyrics about crushes, their public flirtation, their awkward arms around each other in posed pictures are all there. Not universally, but moreso than ever before. Without knowing what the Internet will look like when they're 30, the future 30-year-old has an overflowing pile of textual evidence to back up their claim that seventh grade was, in fact, miserable. Or maybe it was not actually miserable, but complicated, full of tiny victories and defeats that felt more intense to their young self than their older self can remember. With such a thorough record, it becomes harder to paint entire eras with a single brush.

Deep in the series of tubes lay the Livejournal and Xanga entries of a good deal of millennials and Gen Xers. God help you if you message someone on Facebook you haven't spoken with since 2007, because you will be greeted with the last words you exchanged back then, staring you down from that little messenger inbox. Friendster and Myspace profiles lurk in waiting. The looming Internet history I'm describing is not something for the future -- it's already here, and it's something many adults would prefer not to face. Already, for years, companies have sprung up to help scrub the embarrassing histories of those who can afford their expensive services. And, as Adrian Chen pointed out at Gawker in 2011, the existence of such services creates a “Reputation Gap,” where the wealthy can document their goofy youthful antics worry free, knowing they can hire a team to clean them up before their college application or job interview. Meanwhile, those who can't afford it — and especially, the most likely to be already screwed over, like those with criminal convictions or victims of cyber bullying — must live forever with their pasts. For those on the poor end of the Reputation Gap, a horrible experience does not necessarily fade with time. The Internet has a vivid memory. There's no leaving seventh grade behind when its gory details are attached to your name and your search results forever.

In addition to the scrubbers, there are services designed to ensure employers that they won't miss out on anything that may be hiding in an applicant's Internet history. Social Intelligence Corp. offers products like “Social Insight,” a “comprehensive picture of an applicant’s complete publically [sic] available online presence.” Even more insidious-sounding is “Continuous Insight: Monitoring for enforcement of company policy and protection against insider threat,” suggesting it's not only the past that can get you in trouble, but the present. This is illustrated by the multitude of scandals involving social-media-inept politicians, like Anthony Weiner's “Whoops, I tweeted a sext” and a Republican staffer's “Whoops, I went on a Facebook tirade against the president's children.” Who needs their younger self to haunt them when your present self is right here?

Having a public scandal about your private life may be a disturbing byproduct of the internet, but it at least makes more sense than having a public fall for your past life. Krystal Ball was 28 when she ran for Congress in Virginia; she was 22 when she went to a party and posed for silly, sexually suggestive pictures. When those pictures became public, it was 22-year-old Ball who was suddenly the campaign’s central figure. Losing an election, at least in part, because of your younger self's dick joke is wholly different than Weiner losing an election because of his current self's dick.

For young people, that space between the past and the present may be less clear. If a high school senior realizes that she should clean up her online presence as she applies to colleges, the party picture she posted a year earlier could still be seen by an admissions counselor. By 2012, a quarter of the nation's top colleges were looking at applicants' Facebook profiles or Google results. Athletic recruiters also see what they can learn about a student through social media. The idea that teenagers should all be totally accountable for drinking, doing drugs, and general mischief — which teenagers have been doing since forever — is a dangerous premise, and one that is once again more likely to affect already marginalized young people. Do we really want young adults paying for sins they've already grown out of?

The stakes are higher for kids who can’t insulate themselves with socio-economic and white privilege. For one teenager, a social media post could be an obstacle to a top college. For another, it's a criminal conspiracy charge. Asheem Henry was a college freshman in New Jersey when he was included in a massive NYPD indictment of a crew he spent time with when he was younger. Amongst the evidence against him were social media photos from when he was 14 and 15 years old, which the prosecutor used as proof that he was associated with the gang. The District Attorney’s office charged Henry as an adult. Social media as evidence is increasingly used as tactic by law enforcement; former NYPD chief Ray Kelly, in 2013, praised “attention to the new battleground of social media,” saying it saved the lives of “mostly young minority men.” For some of these kids, the cost of being young on the Internet isn't just their reputation, but their freedom.

Public figures, too, experience the problem of the thorough record. Videos of candidate Obama exist to remind his progressive voters of all the ways in which President Obama is different. Little 12-year-old Justin Bieber still lives on Youtube, innocent and talented, playing an acoustic guitar. Hannah Montana casts a judgmental shadow over naked Miley as she swings on the wrecking ball. Former child stars' headshots are put side by side with their adorable young selves over captions like “WHERE DID THEY GO WRONG?”

On the flip side, adulthood as a whole would almost certainly be better if we were forced to reconcile with youth more honestly. Would a stronger recollection of one’s initial impressions of life act as a counterweight to those frequent byproducts of aging — wisdom, loss, disillusionment, pragmatism? Young people and their thoughts, passions, and beliefs are already here, of course, but adults don't often prioritize listening, especially to the ones that don't, in their eyes, belong to them. If one's own youth were less easy to escape, would youth in general be less easy to marginalize?

I got a tattoo when I was 19, and I've never regretted it. I never got the one I really wanted back then (it was a reference to Bright Eyes, another public figure constantly scorned for the emotions of his youth), and I think I regret the self-doubt and insecurity I felt about it back then more than I would regret the tattoo now. There is much about youth that should be forgiven, if not forgotten. But I think that adults might be better for it if they remembered, forever, how silly or passionate or serious or sad they may have been as young people. Whoever my young students grow into, I hope that they feel connected to the imperfect and unfinished people they are now.

Comments are closed.