Google's Schmidt: Teens' mistakes will never go away

Speaking at a festival in the U.K., Google's executive chairman offers that the things teens do now will stay with them forever, by way of the Web. He also suggested some people are sharing too much online.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read
When you search "teens do stupid things" on YouTube, you get a treasure trove. BFvsGF/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

It must be peculiar for children of the Internet age.

They are the first to have a complete record of their whole lives. They are the first who'll be able to offer concrete proof of every one of their days, friends, and actions.

Eric Schmidt worries, however, that they'll be the first who'll never be allowed to forget their mistakes.

As the Telegraph reports, Schmidt spoke Saturday at the Hay Festival in the U.K. and offered some sobering thoughts for those addled by online life.

He said: "There are situations in life that it's better that they don't exist. Especially if there is stuff you did when you were a teenager. Teenagers are now in an adult world online."

Some days, you could hardly describe most of what happens online as "adult." Still, Schmidt says he believes the online world has gone too far in forcing teens to never forget.

In bygone times, he said, they were punished, but allowed to grow beyond youthful indiscretions.

Some might wonder that teenagers aren't punished enough these days, so the online world acts as a peculiar corrective.

However, my own worry is the use of the word "mistake."

This is a word that is always couched in certainty, but often has a highly fluctuating meaning.

A word or an act can seem like a mistake when it happens -- and even shortly afterward. In years to come, though, you might look back on it and see that, though it created friction and even hurt at the time, it served a higher and more character-forming purpose in the long run.

Supposed mistakes can lead you down paths that you never would have otherwise traveled. You end up discovering things about yourself and what makes you happy that may have otherwise never been found.

Calling one's boss "a raving buck-toothed lunatic, with the management skills of a deaf hyena and the talent of an oaf's corpse" might get you fired -- or even ostracized for a while.

Yet the courage that might have taken could serve to bolster an otherwise compliant spirit and project you to higher goals and achievements.

Similarly, a teenager who is digitally captured engaging in one of the thousands of indiscretions to which teenagers have mental and physical access -- say, putting toilet cleaner and aluminum foil in a water bottle -- might have to suffer for it in the short term.

In years to come, however, that might seem merely a fond and hearty reminder of how absurd life (and people) can be. It might also show an aspect of character that some might not immediately spot.

It's true that, as Schmidt said in his speech, people are now sharing too much. He gave the example of future parents posting ultrasounds of their unborn babies.

But part of the problem that teens might encounter in the future comes not from their having made supposed mistakes. It's from those who might choose to judge them for those supposed mistakes.

As ever in life, the opinions of others -- especially in the sheep pen that is the Web -- can be the most mistaken and most damaging distortion of all.