Let me tell you about the only time in my life I got really drunk. I was studying abroad my junior year of college at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The second night I arrived, all the students were encouraged to take part in a “three-legged pub crawl.” I rarely drank, and didn’t know what that was, but was easily corralled into participating. I was tied, leg-to-leg, to a large Scottish rugby star named Norrie who could drink more beer than I could water, to little apparent effect. We raced from pub to pub, downing a pint of beer in each. Before long Norrie was dragging me, with encouraging shouts of “C’mon, laddie.”
That night was the only time in my life I wanted to die. By the next morning I had learned a valuable lesson about my limitations. But here is the key point—the lesson was mine alone.
That story, embarrassing as it was, would have no life if I never told it. Norrie probably has no memory of me, and I have, to be honest, only the haziest memory of him. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. No one intruded on me as I bent over in the bathroom to spend the night throwing up. It was the ideal error of youth: committed once, never repeated, with no lasting effects.
I remembered my ill-fated pub crawl last week when a parent came to my office to show me a picture that had been posted on Facebook of her teenage daughter drunk and acting wild. Her daughter—keenly aware of the perils of social media—thought she was safe in a small party with friends. Now, the mother was distraught, and her daughter was nearly hysterical, begging her friends to erase pictures that may not ever be permanently erased. Her “Norrie moment” might never be gone. Twenty years from now an employer could find it in the endless echo chamber that is the Internet.
What should she do? So long as your picture exists anywhere, even on a phone of a friend, it can exist everywhere. She can be grateful that most employers in the future will understand that what one does in high school or college is not representative of the rest of your life. But ultimately the best she can do is to learn that young people no longer have the latitude for the kind of mistakes they once did.
I used to wonder what it meant for children whose early years were recorded by their parents. They no longer had simple childhood memories—they were augmented by film of how they looked, what they said, how relatives and friends acted around them. Now, our lives are recorded far more comprehensively, and the images often tend to the extreme: moments of joy, sorrow, surprise, and embarrassment. And of course, the home movie was designed for those who visited your home. Social media is designed to broadcast your image to the world.
We have heard a great deal about the developing teenage brain, with suggestions that it is less adept at envisioning long-range consequences than the adult brain. The future is less real to those for whom the future is still a long, vast plain of promise. It is our task as adults to continually remind our teenagers that part of the price they pay for the ease of social media is its permanence. In an age when nothing is lost, what was once an error can become a catastrophe.