For the past few weeks, my six-year-old daughter has been obsessed with Selena Gomez reprising her role as Alex Russo on the Disney show Wizards of Waverly Place. Like many of her friends, Rory has seen every episode of Wizards and religiously listens to Selena's music. While Alex--like so many of the current Disney lineup--is a snarky character, we haven't had to worry much about the consequences of Selena fandom until now, when the complications of online information are smacking us in the face.
Selena's getting older, and is staring in a very grown up movie, Spring Breakers. Critics like Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Sherri Shepherd of The View have taken issue with how magazines like Seventeen, a publication whose core demographic is 12-19 year olds, promote the racy R-rated film. Shepard said: "I get that people want to evolve ... but when you want to evolve into a adult, you need to leave the kid stuff behind."
I'm all in favor Selena choosing any roles she sees fit to advance her career. That's a private decision, and it would be terribly unfair to say she's obliged to remain infantilized forever just because she made a name for herself on Disney. Parents simply have to deal with the fact that childhood stars eventually leave childhood behind. Previously, Miley Cyrus outgrew Hannah Montana and caused a stir. In the future, others will follow suit.
What I find troubling, though, is that until now, Rory has been able to search for Selena online without there being any cause for concern. But with the previews for Spring Breakers trailer featuring guns, drugs, and sexualized content and a rollover image advertising it appearing on Selena's homepage, I have to worry that her quest for more Disneyesque footage will lead to inappropriate material, even though marketers are not pushing it her way. In the Google age, Shepard's exhortation rings hollow, as directed advertising is only one channel of content delivery. When the Internet doesn't forget, leaving the past behind can be exceedingly hard, if not impossible.
While my wife and I do strongly monitor Rory's online activity, we also allow her some freedom to go on YouTube and the like without us breathing over her shoulder. Some might say it is irresponsible to ever allow a six year old to ever go online without supervision. We disagree, believing it is better to talk with Rory about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate online behavior, so that she knows how make smart decisions from the start. Nearly all her friends have iPads and iPods, and that makes constant surveillance impossible. If parents think their situation is different, they're probably in deep denial.
In the end, it was easy to solve the Selena problem. We simply told Rory that she should stay away from Spring Breakers previews because they are scary. Rory doesn't find this type of forbidden fruit intriguing, and so the strategy probably will work. That said, I can't help but be upset at the thought that if my wife and I weren't tuned into pop culture, we might not have caught wind of Selena's transition until after Rory stumbled upon disconcerting footage.
Selena's desire to grow up without being forever being chained down by her Disney origins reminds me of a point made by privacy advocates pushing for the "right to be forgotten". David Hoffman--Director of Security Policy and Global Privacy Officer at Intel Corporation--captures the moral vision of this movement when he notes that in order for folks to learn and grow, to experiment with new ideas and even get a fresh start, they can't be shackled down by the past's crushing weight.
Clearly, the situations driving the right to be forgotten clearly differ from Selena's case. She chose to express herself in a highly public way and was rewarded with great celebrity compensation. By contrast, Hoffman focuses on situations where embarrassing incidents and tentatively expressed (or even abandoned) views infect someone's digital dossier, distorting how the person is perceived. Opportunities become diminished. Reputations are harmed.
Despite these differences, the comparison brings to light a crucial truth about so-called "personal information" in the digital age of networked citizens and consumers. Information about us often involves or affects other people. One reason the right to be forgotten is so hard to implement is that deleting information about me can easily involve taking down information about you--information that you might have a valid interest, if not right, to protect. Likewise, while Selena has good reason to shed her Disney image, the impact of that choice can't be contained. It can cause kids like my daughter to grow up before their time.