Paris Brown – Two Worlds CollidePosted on

Social media has made a huge commercial success out of the teenage desire to gossip, show-off, let off steam, tease, joke, overshare and be rebellious.

The worlds of Facebook and Twitter, and MySpace and Bebo before them, are not exclusively the domains of the young and teenaged but these “digital natives” are the generation which dominate social media. They were born into the digital age and assume that communicating online is the norm and a right. Newer websites and apps like Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and Kik are almost exclusively inhabited by teenagers and young adults.

Whilst ill-advised Tweets, posts and photos can cause young people significant problems within their own communities and peer groups it is when the digital native world of online chatter collides with the fierce, relentless and “grown up” world of the mainstream media that the consequences can be most dire.

Before this month 17 year old Paris Brown was an ordinary digital native. Like most others her age she had already created her digital footprint by her use of social media including a personal Twitter account where she had posted some Tweets which were offensive by nature. Then she came to prominence. This month she was unveiled as the Youth Police and Crime Commissioner for the county of Kent. The role was backed by a PR campaign and Miss Brown was interviewed on national television alongside the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Ann Barnes.

At any time prior to that interview the Kent Police time could have reviewed Paris’ online output, her digital footprint and her social media. Steps could have been taken to remove any content which may cause offence or be deemed inappropriate (or indeed review the job offer if her previous conduct was deemed to make her unsuitable). Instead, without doing that due diligence, Paris was sent out into the Lion’s Den of the UK media. A 17 year old girl with a digital footprint and a controversial (at least in the eyes of certain parts of the press) public role. The consequences were inevitable.

For any individual, of any age, to be turned over by the tabloid press, particularly by the Daily Mail, is devastating and it will no doubt take Paris some time to psychologically recover.

There are many good arguments against the Mail’s conduct in exploiting Paris’ Tweets, and the way in which it was done (see here for example), but the unavoidable truth is that her public humiliation was, well, avoidable. Any company or organisation which seeks to appoint young people to roles of public responsibility, or public profile, owes a duty of care to those individuals.

There are three crucial actions that any such company or organisation must take before exposing a young person to the limelight:

 

  1. A thorough audit of their publicly available social media so that any issues can be dealt with before the press intervene.
  2. A dialogue and discussion with the individual about the pressures in the outside world and how social media affects that; and
  3. Ongoing support as that individual seeks to balance the private life of a teenager with the public life of a prominent role.

 

Dialogue, rather than diktat, is crucial. Social media is here to stay, and it will grow, the young talent in this country can only thrive and succeed if they are guided, not forced, and allowed to express themselves whilst also protecting themselves.

Whilst Himsworths have developed educational programmes for Premier League football clubs with a sporting focus the need for this kind of intelligent understanding and exchange is needed across industries – and not just for teenaged employees. Social media “slip ups” by teachers, government workers and even those in the private sector have caused disastrous media crises and, worse than that, personal humiliation and despair.

 

As for Paris Brown. If she had a digital footprint before she joined Kent Police, she now leaves the force with a digital footprint that may be beyond repair. Google will ensure that her legacy will, for some time, be related to “foul mouthed Tweets” and not for the potential which Ann Barnes apparently saw in her before her appointment.

 

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