Few people would defend the harmful and even hateful words she used as a teenager. Clearly, when teens post such things on social media, they need to understand the intense harm such words can cause to those exposed to them, and need to learn from and apologize for such behavior.
Social media’s algorithms tend to amplify drama, promote hateful speech and prioritize negativity. Although in real life many parents would intervene so their children didn’t say insensitive or bigoted things, the Internet has evolved — or devolved — to simultaneously normalize invectives and demand moral purity, making it a particularly unforgiving environment.
But how do we call out hate speech made by children without creating a culture of constraint? “We don’t want children to say offensive things online,” said Stacey Steinberg, legal skills professor at the University of Florida and supervising attorney of the Gator TeamChild Juvenile Law Clinic. “But we also need to figure out what to do once that happens.” We need to both teach our kids a new set of skills, and, she said, establish “public policy and perhaps law to create some sort of a social contract.”
Some question whether what children post online — and what others post about children — should follow them into adulthood, potentially affecting their academic and vocational careers. As tech companies target younger children with apps like Facebook’s Messenger Kids, children go online at ever-earlier ages. “A whole lot of content, whether it’s accurate or not, is there with you when you become an adult,” said digital literacy specialist Joanne Orlando.
Even former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once suggested that young people have the automatic right to change their names upon adulthood, to gain distance from their online pasts. But the education company Kaplan found that 36 percent of college admissions counselors use social media profiles in decision-making about applicants; 58 percent reported that what they found had a negative impact.
“The ripple effects of derogatory language can be very long and deep,” said Tara L. Conley, assistant professor of communication and media at Montclair State University, and the race and technology practitioner fellow at Stanford University. As a study called “Prevalence and Psychological Effects of Hateful Speech in Online College Communities” noted, “hateful speech exposure has negative effects on students’ academic lives and performance, with lowered self-esteem, and poorer task quality and goal clarity.”
This all presents big questions for which we don’t yet have answers. “At what point should kids know better?” asked David Dockterman, a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “When should a person’s ‘permanent digital record’ start recording, if ever? To what extent should social media be a space for trial-and-error exploration around identity and social behavior?"
“These are fantastically difficult moral dilemmas for teenagers who act impulsively, using tools that are not fully under their control, leading to consequences that perhaps none of us can anticipate,” said Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “This is the first time we’ve had a society in which almost by default, everything is recorded and shared and aggregated in ways that create a lifelong profile. Children should have the right to make mistakes.”
Europe’s digital erasure
In Europe, children and parents sometimes have a version of that right, called the “right to be forgotten.” They can petition data companies to unlink them in search engines — even from things that they’ve posted themselves — from information that’s no longer relevant to their reputation.
While the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (which the United States has yet to ratify) ensures children’s right to privacy, and a 2015 survey found that 9 out of 10 Americans would like a digital erasure option, it’s a tough sell there. In Europe, people’s social media posts are often considered data and easier to regulate. In America, they’re considered speech, and free speech often outweighs the right to privacy. (Although tech companies’ outsized power probably also explains the lack of regulation.)
Holding kids to adult standards
Yet we do sometimes seal or expunge juvenile criminal records, depending on the severity of the crime, the age of the defendant and other factors. “We recognize in so many contexts that kids are unique and have special needs based on their immaturity, their developmental status, their inability to give consent,” said Steinberg. “There are things that do get forgotten under our legal system. But we haven’t yet done it for online sharing.”
If McCammond had committed a crime as a teen — and hadn’t posted a video of it on Twitter — probably no one would know. What she wrote wasn’t illegal, though it may seem that way. As Columbia linguist John McWhorter recently wrote, racial slurs have become “unspeakable obscenities,” even though members of social groups may use those words to describe themselves. (McCammond herself did not use those slurs.)
And even if what she wrote was hurtful and potentially immoral, distinguishing right from wrong, acceptable from unacceptable, and making mistakes — and learning from them — are huge parts of growing up. “Figuring out who you are can involve a lot of experimentation, exploration, and comparison to others,” Dockterman said. “Sometimes that search for identity and belonging lead a young person into bad decisions.”
Moreover, said Orlando, “adolescence is a time when we are highly influenced by others. What we do and say is not necessarily genuine to who we are.”
“Every single adult has had the experience of being a teenager and doing things that they wish they didn’t,” Steinberg said. The difference is that “now everything is just so public and permanent.”
The psychological implications of the online environment
Livingstone, who studies the Internet’s effect on children, found this public permanence had a strong effect. “When I interviewed children, they thought the slate should be wiped clean when they started their adult lives,” she said. In a world in which that slate is always sullied, “there’s a kind of a chilling effect on children. They feel fatalistic.”
“We’re so worried about what we say and how it might be interpreted or misinterpreted or read in the context that’s changed 10, 20 years from now,” said Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at the Center at Santa Clara University. “That’s not the kind of society that encourages human flourishing.”
But some teens don’t feel that way. According to Isaac Botier, executive director of college admissions programs at Kaplan, 70 percent of students Kaplan polled in 2019 said social media is “fair game” for admissions officers. Only 30 percent thought it was an “invasion of privacy.”
Forgetting versus forgiving
People considering the conundrum about how to handle these incidents aren’t talking about online bullies who require a different kind of punishment and/or absolution. Rather, this is about young people making mistakes, either because they didn’t know better or because they didn’t understand the impact of their actions, for themselves or the people belonging to the social categories they discussed. In Europe, the criteria for digital erasure are “broadly speaking, when it’s no longer a part of their reputation, where it no longer reflects who they are, and when it no longer serves a legitimate purpose,” Steinberg said.
Many people think McCammond’s tweets were still relevant, because she was appointed to lead a publication aiming to be explicitly anti-racist. They see what happened to McCammond as less cancel culture than accountability.
If the right to be forgotten existed here, it wouldn’t magically sweep a child’s transgressions from people’s hard drives, or their memories; it simply keeps them from being linked to them in search engines. And allowing children digital erasure options doesn’t mean sanctioning hate speech, which can be deeply damaging. You may want the right to be forgotten, but someone scarred by your speech may never forget.
Ultimately we need to ask many more questions, about how to create a society that’s anti-racist and pro social-justice, while allowing for grace. “Should we judge people for who they are now or who they were, years or decades ago?” asked Raicu. “I think we do need to allow for the possibility of people growing and changing.”
“There should be social protocols in place for us to address the issue when it comes about and then move on from it,” said Conley. The key if you’ve used harmful speech is to take ownership, apologize, and actively try to help the community you may have injured. “Hopefully,” she said, “we get to become better humans in the process.”
Lisa Selin Davis is the author of “Tomboy: The Surprising History and Future of Girls Who Dare to Be Different.” She has written articles, essays and op-eds for The Washington Post, CNN, the New York Times and many others.