Teenager logs into social media app on phone

Identity

Your digital footprint can come back to haunt you, says media historian

Adolescent transgressions once confined to yearbooks are becoming immortal.

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The things that teens share online, or the things that parents post about their children, create a permanent record.

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Jessica Hill/AP Image

Do you have memories from adolescence you’d rather forget? Previously, that choice — whether to open up that embarrassing high school yearbook or keep it firmly closed — generally rested in your hands. But for kids growing up in today’s social media landscape, the digital footprint they (or their parents) create can immortalize childhood and its growing pains forever.

Kate Eichhorn, a professor of culture and media at The New School and author of "The End of Forgetting," has researched how the permanence of social media chips away at our “agency over traces of the past.” What happens when a digital record won’t allow you to forget? Or when the digital bread crumbs we create as minors are interpreted as an unshakable portrait of who we are in adulthood?

According to Eichhorn, there can sometimes be painful consequences when young people grow up. 

Three takeaways

  • Eichhorn argues that “we’re hardwired to forget'' difficult or traumatic memories to move past them. The digitization of childhood, as both young people and their parents document growing up on social media, challenges this ability to leave the past behind. Eichhorn notes that, for the LGBTQ+ community especially, severing digital ties can be crucial to embracing a new identity.  
  • In an effort to take control of their digital footprint, some minors have taken to creating LinkedIn profiles. Eichhorn views this approach — wherein kids believe “a picture of them wearing corporate clothes” is the only acceptable online presence they can have — constitutes overcorrecting. She also says class can be a factor as to whether young people are taught to “curate their public image” from an early age.
  • Eichhorn is invested in “the idea of change” and the ability to reinvent oneself. When it comes to public figures, such as former Teen Vogue editor-in-chief Alexi McCammond, who faced professional consequences for offensive remarks she made online during adolescence, Eichhorn sees tension between not condoning offensive behavior and acknowledging that teenagerdom is a time of growth.

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