Needed: an ‘eraser’ button to right Internet wrongs

A Stanford professor wants tech giants to allow kids to permanently erase personal information

Control, alt, erase?

Corbis, Getty Images; Photo Illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

There’s a reason why technology executives don’t post pictures of their kids online. Digital photographs can contain embedded information about when and where the picture was taken, and that data can be extracted with computer software. A photo of your daughter, for instance, can tell a stalker where she parks her bike, which shortcut she takes home, and what school she attends. And if your daughter is sending nude photos to her boyfriend and those pictures make it to the web, advances in facial recognition technology mean she could be identified years later.

If you’re feeling helpless in steering your child away from online errors in judgment, a new book by Stanford professor James Steyer called Talking Back to Facebook is full of sound advice. Chelsea Clinton, one of Steyer’s former students, writes the foreword.

Steyer, the father of four, is the passionate founder of Common Sense Media, an organization that recently helped introduce legislation to require tech giants to create and distribute an “eraser” button. “Web companies should make it possible for young people to completely delete personal information they regret having posted or shared publicly. No 13-year-old should have to live the rest of his or her life with the consequences of some poor, impulsive decision that was shared online.”

Yet all the tech gurus claim an eraser button is not technically feasible. “I find this hard to believe,” Steyer said in an interview last week. “The people who invented facial recognition technology can’t create an eraser button?”

In the meantime, he recommends keeping kids off Facebook until 15. At Stanford, he’s banned laptops in lectures. As it is, many students are less able to concentrate, write well, think coherently and synthesize information than they were a few years ago. “When I polled my class, more than half of my students said they wished Facebook didn’t exist. Many told me that Facebook can diminish the quality and depth of personal relationships and weaken their basic communication skills. But, of course, they had to be on it because everyone else was.”

Don’t give kids smartphones until they hit high school, he warns. They give instant access to apps that encourage risky choices and behaviour. “The Android Market features tons of cheap drug-related apps like Garden of Weeden, which teaches users how to grow pot, and Nose Candy, which provides step-by-step illustrated instructions for using cocaine.” Tell your teen you reserve the right to check the messages and photos. It may feel like snooping but her cellphone is a privilege that you’re paying for, and it’s your job as a parent to make sure she’s safe.

If you discover porn on your child’s phone or browser history, don’t shame or interrogate them. “Have a matter-of-fact conversation with your tween about how degrading it is to the people involved, and how completely different it is to real-life intimacy.”

Keep the computer in a common area and never allow kids to play violent video games such as Mortal Kombat. “As the American Academy of Pediatrics puts it, playing violent video games leads to adolescent violence like smoking leads to lung cancer.”

By age 7, teach your child not to share online personal information or passwords. Steyer suggests helping your child make up a screen name that doesn’t give away her identity, “one that nobody can guess, not her brother or her best friend. She should never use her nickname, a pet’s name, her birthdate, the family’s address or phone number.” The tech industry has little interest in protecting your privacy, writes Steyer. “Tech companies have a clear economic motive for intruding upon our privacy and obtaining as much personal data as they can. It’s about profit, and it allows them to serve you up more targeted advertising.”

Be a role model for your child, and unplug as a family. “I’ve heard poignant stories from kids who’ve grown up with parents pushing the playground swing with one hand while texting with the other, or keeping their eyes and ears glued to the phone at their kid’s soccer game. Many kids have told me they feel less loved by their ‘always on’ parents.”

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