The exposure of youth police commissioner Paris Brown's homophobic and racist tweets tells us a lot about how we treat young people.
Over the past few days, 17-year-old Brown has faced huge criticism after being exposed for posting offensive tweets and Facebook statuses between the ages of 14-16. In one way, I feel sorry for her. The media scrutiny and public vitriol she is experiencing would be hard for any 17-year-old girl to deal with. Seeing her face splashed over the front page of the Mail on Sunday can't have been nice, and while breaking down in tears in an interview with the BBC on national television she did seem to regret her actions.
But on the other hand, the defensive apologies given by both her and her mentor Ann Barnes, the Kent Police and local crime commissioner, involved some seriously objectionable claims.
The main excuse seemed to be 'she was young'. Sure, we all did stupid things when were young. But no - we didn't all make violent homophobic and racist remarks on a public forum. We didn't openly attack people for their sexuality or skin colour.
Brown claimed she had been 'venting' online; and made the comments without thinking. Barnes repeated this excuse. The problem is that we shouldn't be telling teenagers that it's okay to make horrific comments on Facebook just because you're angry. It isn't okay. No school would say that 'venting' covers racist abuse in a classroom. We should be telling them that homophobia and racism is never okay - it's not okay when you are angry and it certainly isn't excusable.
Social media is a fact of life; and it has lots of brilliant ways of connecting people and providing information like never before. But it's important to remind young people that the internet is as public as a high street or a school common room. If anything it's more public. Most teenagers have hundreds or thousands of Facebook friends: saying something in the street is unlikely to get as much exposure as that.
The other thing that Ann Barnes seemed to completely forget when she was defending Paris Brown was that she may be young, but it is her job as youth police commissioner to represent other young people in the community. The reason an MP would resign over offensive statements isn't just because they are appalling to say; but because saying them removes a bond of trust between the representative and the people they are claiming to represent.
For gay teenagers who experience horrific homophobic attacks, or teenagers from racial minorities who wish to approach their youth police commissioner to discuss issues of importance to them; the feeling of confidence in Paris Brown is likely to be eroded now that she has been exposed for a history of appalling comments.
And, let's not forget, she's being paid £15,000 a year to represent those teenagers.
Ann Barnes claimed that the world would be a bizarre place if employers looked at what people said on Facebook when they were teenagers. Ann Barnes seems like a lovely lady, but totally out of touch. Employers do look at what people have said on Facebook. The website CareerBuilder found in a 2012 survey that 37% of employers now look at social media when deciding whether to hire someone. In 2010 CareerBuilder found that half of employers have rejected job applicants after looking at their Facebook page. One in 10 applicants were vetoed for discussing excessive drinking or taking drugs online, while 13% were rejected for making racist comments. That means that if Paris had applied for any job aged 17 or 18, her prospective employer may well have looked at her previous Facebook and Twitter comments. And most likely, they wouldn't have been cool with racism just because she was a teenager.
If Ann Barnes wants to support Paris Brown, to claim that she shouldn't resign, that's fine. But she should have stressed that Brown's actions were utterly inexcusable; that she was deeply regretful and made those comments thoughtlessly. Teenagers shouldn't be unconditionally excused for behaviour because they are young - a fact the law recognises by still punishing young offenders despite giving them less harsh sentences than adults.
Instead, Barnes flitted between acknowledging that the comments were awful, before running through a list of reasons they weren't all that bad. In the BBC interview, Brown was asked why she would make those remarks when presumably she wouldn't have made them in the street. Both she and Barnes claimed the comments were 'taken out of context'. What does that mean? It's pretty impossible to think of any context which would make racism okay.
Homophobia and racism shouldn't be considered normal and excusable teenage behaviour. Why? Because those actions hurt people just as much as when adults say them: they make life just as hard for gay teenagers, Asian teenagers, or teenagers who are immigrants or asylum seekers and living in majority white communities. Telling teenagers that racism and homophobia is okay as long as you are 16 and doing it on Facebook is a huge mistake.
Everyone loves social media - and everyone makes mistakes - but we should probably start reminding teenagers that saying horrific things on the internet will be viewed exactly the same way by employers, and by society, as saying them in person.
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