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What My Teen Taught Me About Free Speech

Photograph by Getty Images

A few years ago my daughter won a prize in a video contest. The subject was overpopulation, and her stop-motion film using gummy bears, M&M’s and chocolate kisses won her an honorable mention in the competition, some local news coverage and a nice cash prize. The best part? She got to eat all of the props.

We were still celebrating about this when a few weeks later she got even more exciting news—a casting agency saw her video and asked her to audition for a national commercial they were hiring for. The spot was for a big brand (whose name I won’t mention here, but think “mac and cheese”) who were looking for a kid to star in a series of commercials that would show them pursuing a hobby or craft they were passionate about.

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The series would be called [big brand] Kids, and in my daughter’s case she would make a film and they would document the process along the way. We set up an audition time, and my husband and I started thinking about how we would spend all that money, I mean put it away for college.

The audition went really well, but we didn’t hear back from them, so we figured our daughter’s dreams of taking down Spielberg would have to wait another few years. Then, a couple of months later I got a call from the casting agent—he told me they’d chosen a tween boy for the commercial, but they’d had to fire him because of some “inappropriate” things he’d posted on Twitter that weren’t in line with their brand image. Was my daughter still interested in the job?

After getting an emphatic “yes” the casting agent immediately laid out the schedule: He wanted to meet the next day to go over the details. He needed clothing and shoe sizes so wardrobe could start gathering items. In a few days we’d be flown to San Francisco to film the first of the commercials.

Oh, and one other thing, they needed links to all my daughter’s social media pages: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo and anywhere else she had even the slightest presence.

I don’t have anything to hide ... But I don’t want to be watched all the time, either.

While my daughter was excited about filming the commercials, she was also uneasy about their intention to monitor her online life, and I didn’t blame her. Surely they’d be scrutinizing her after what had just happened with the other kid. And while I thought it was a great opportunity, I left the decision up to her. OK, I may have mentioned the money she’d be able to save up and the film she’d be able to make. She may have also mentioned the number of Xboxes she’d be able to buy.

But the words “invasive” and “Big Brother” and “free speech” were mentioned, too, and I could tell she was agonizing over what to do. Finally, she decided she didn’t want to go through with it. “I don’t have anything to hide,’ she said. “But I don’t want to be watched all the time, either.”

“What if I’m just not a [big brand] Kid?” she asked.

I thought about her last question, and I knew exactly what she meant. She’s a smart, funny, creative girl and a really good student, but I couldn’t see her entirely fitting in with the wholesome image I could sense the company was looking for. One look at her Facebook status about staying up until midnight on a school night and they’d fire her for sure.

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I called the casting agent back but I could tell he didn’t understand at all, and I have to admit I felt a pang of regret thinking about that vacation home, I mean college fund, flying out the window. But there was no way we were going to force her to take on something she didn’t feel right about, and we were proud of her for not being willing to conform to someone else’s image of her. And most importantly, she knew she’d made the right decision—no matter how many Xboxes she’d be missing out on.

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