The storm which broke about the head of 17-year-old Paris Brown, who was briefly Britain’s first youth crime commissioner earlier this month, may leave a changed world in its wake.
For all of us, young and old, the message was clear: do not confuse social media with Las Vegas. What happens on social media does not stay on social media. Well, actually, it does, and that’s the problem. What it doesn’t do is stay private, the way Vegas might once have promised to hide all your indiscretions within its glamorous walls – though not, of course, in the case of Prince Harry, which rather proves my point.
If we are seduced into indiscretion on Twitter or Facebook or wherever, we let down our guard at our peril. The evidence will live forever and one day we will be sorry, like Paris.
Schools have long lectured students about thinking twice before they commit comments or photos to social media, none more so than boarding schools, which feel responsible for a student’s actions in whatever part of the 24-hour-day he or she manages to do the wrong thing.
We do not disapprove of social media per se, but we do disapprove of some of the uses students can find for it. In particular, in terms of e-safety, much work is done to inform students of the harm they can do if they use social media to bully others. Bullying in any form is abhorrent. But recent years have seen bullying – “We were only having a laugh! It was a joke!” – become both more insidious and more powerful because it can sneak onto your phone or appear on the screen in your bedroom.
Bullied at school can now mean bullied everywhere, it doesn’t stop at the school gate, it’s in your pocket, in your hand, part of the fabric of your life at school, on the bus, in the street, at home, in your bedroom. And everyone you know gets to see it at the same time. Word is out, and the victim feels they can do nothing to stop it.
The Paris Brown case will go down in history as the major case which demonstrated the truth of what we tell children: don’t let yourself down on social media, because it may be quick and easy, but it’s also permanent. Others will see it. Others will go looking for it. Others will bring it to light when you would rather forget it ever happened, forget you even thought those words, never mind committed them to – what? Print? Not exactly. It’s more permanent than that.
Any of your tweets may compose a picture of you made up from a million minor comments and idle, casual flicks of the thumbs. All you. Undeniable, even when you would give your arm to be able to take them back.
Teachers and counsellors warn of the permanence – “Yeah, yeah, I never say anything rotten!” – and we warn of the likelihood of future jobs being jeopardised if your presence in the social media world is at odds with the glossy, sanitised version you put on display in your CV or at interview (a warning teachers themselves would do well to heed).
We warn that universities will trawl for the truth before they offer a precious place to an avowed layabout. “Don’t be daft – they don’t have time for that!” But Paris Brown proves our point.
Granted her appointment by Kent’s finest was a public enough event to set the newshounds upon her – “Can this be true? Who is this girl? What’s the back story to pad out the pages?” And maybe most appointments will not get the subsequent rigorous-to-the-point-of-brutal scrutiny to which Paris was subjected. But bear in mind that the crime commissioner who appointed her and sat presenting her on breakfast television, patted her on the shoulder and said, “she’s been a good girl!”, as if she actually knew (as opposed to believed) that to be the case.
And bear in mind, at the end of the day, she had little choice but to resign. Now, what did we tell you about being careful on social media?
This guest editorial has been written in a personal capacity by Hilary Moriarty, national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association. Pete Henshaw is the editor of SecEd. Email firstname.lastname@example.org