For as long as social media has mined our data, users have been encouraged to be careful about what they post online. As reported by the Independent, a 2018 study showed that an impressive six in 10 Brits have gone on to regret something they posted online, whilst 47 percent wish they could delete aspects of their digital past.
While millennials were, in theory, old enough to have used social media responsibly from the off and Gen Z are thought to take internet privacy more seriously than previous generations, those stuck in the middle – dubbed the “zillennial” generation by some – are now facing the repercussions of having grown up publishing their entire lives on the internet.
Zillennials – those born between 1993 and 1998 – were between the ages of 8 and 13 when Facebook first gained traction in the UK. Old enough to have lost out on ever owning property but young enough to respectfully use TikTok and vaguely know what an e-girl is, zillennials have had access to today’s mainstream social media channels (i.e. not the now-defunct MySpace or Bebo) from the ages of around 10 and upwards. Despite Facebook only being open to those aged 13+, all they needed was a valid email address and the ability to lie about their age to set up their very own account.
Tommy*, 23, has constant anxiety when he looks back at the content uploaded to his Facebook, fully believing it’ll come back to bite him in the arse in the near future. This zillennial is a politics graduate from Leeds and has a budding career as a political reporter and perhaps, further down the line, a future MP.
He joined Facebook at 13 and went on to spend half a decade publishing photos and videos that showed him trying out – and thoroughly enjoying – a variety of Class A to C substances, including cocaine, shrooms, pills and weed. Tommy’s Facebook uploads and tagged photos feature him proudly off his tits, storming around his sleepy hometown and engaging in a light spattering of childish criminal damage.
“Some of it you can put down to ‘oh well, kids will be kids’, but then some of the criminal damage and offensive joking is definitely not a good look, no matter what age you are,” he says.
He’s considered cutting his losses and just deleting his Facebook account, but, as he tells me, “if most of this stuff is content other people have uploaded or stuff I’ve sent to people on Messenger, I don’t think deleting my Facebook or untagging myself will really get rid of it. It might be harder for an immediate employer to find something I’m tagged in, but if someone wanted to find some dirt on me, I don’t think it’d be hard for it to turn up.”
When chatting about a certain infamous Tory minister who admitted to having done coke in their younger years, Tommy reckons that the inability to control the narrative in his situation puts him at a disadvantage compared to today’s politicians: “It’s all very well saying ‘I tried cocaine at a party once and I hated it and never touched it again’, but if there are hundreds of images on Facebook of you tripping over and biting walls whilst high on cocaine, it’s not so easy to say ‘ah yes well, I didn’t really enjoy it and never touched it again.”
Alex*, a 24-year-old from London, joined both Facebook and YouTube at the age of 10. When they were just 12, Alex and their friends produced a short home movie in their local park which featured them re-enacting an offensive advert. Since then, Alex has suffered constant underlying anxiety that the video has the potential to offend people and affect their future reputation.
Having lost access to the email address used to set up the account, they can’t reset their password and remove the video themselves. What’s more, Google’s 2006 takeover of YouTube threw a massive spanner in the works, with existing Google users needing to claim “legacy” accounts, which can only be done by entering the account’s original username and password.
For those reading this and mentally cataloguing all the stupid shit they’ve posted online, sadly, there’s not that much that can be done. Jo O’Reilly, a digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, told me that “once information has been given away, it’s very hard to claw back”. She says that it’s important that young people are thoroughly educated in the risks of online sharing before it’s too late.
For those who can’t nip back to 2007 and have a word with their younger selves, Jo suggests locking down all accounts using privacy features and regularly checking your Facebook’s daily ‘Memories’ page on your browser or app, deleting embarrassing content as you see fit. She also suggests that people search their Twitter handle along with controversial words so they can dredge up all those ill thought-out tweets and swiftly delete them.
Hoping to pursue a career in music, my zillennial friend Liam* did just this, dedicating around four hours one evening to purging his online presence of questionable content. “I started by scrolling through all of my Tweets and deleting like 80 percent of them, then just searched for my username along with a selection of words that I used to use but wouldn’t be comfortable using today.” He also changed his Facebook name to a joke-y fake name, ensuring employers in his current job sector couldn’t easily find him.
For those who don’t have enough time to tackle the momentous job of searching their entire internet history, the beta app Hey Clear promises to undertake this purge for you, though Tommy expresses doubts around the technical abilities of such services: “You might not be able to scroll down my Facebook feed and find this content, but who’s to say a private investigator wouldn’t be able to?”
Despite hoping to remove her YouTube video, Alex considers purging their entire social presence to be problematic. “That’s like putting rose-tinted glasses on your life. That’s ignorance, really, isn’t it? It’s just like hiding from what’s going on in the world so you don’t have to face what you can do to make it better.”
For Tommy, Alex and Liam, the content they elected to publish over the years has only caused more hassle than it was worth. While today’s teens make use of Instagram’s close friends function and closely guarded Snapchat stories, tomorrow’s zillennial politicians, artists and musicians will more than likely face the inevitable questioning that comes from old photos and dodgy late-noughties Facebook statuses. It’s just another thing to look forward too in our already uncertain futures.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons