THE BLOG

Social Media Terms And Conditions Are Failing Our Children

11/01/2017 14:33 GMT | Updated 11/01/2017 14:33 GMT

"Borrrrring! It doesn't make any sense." "Do I have to read the whole thing? There are, like, 100 pages!"

Sound familiar? Perhaps the response you'd expect from your much loved but sometimes demanding child to your suggestion that they read the instructions for their new Christmas toy?

Wrong. It's actually the Terms and Conditions of social media sites that have got our children and young teens - the 'growing up digital generation' - tearing their carefully gelled hair out.

The Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, tested the Terms and Conditions of a popular children's social media site with a group of young people, and the comments above are just a few of the weary responses.

The test forms part of a report entitled Growing Up Digitalwhich makes for disturbing reading. It reveals that youngsters are not prepared for what they are signing up to online, and are frequently unaware of how much personal information they are giving away and what the implications of this might be.

Although social media sites claim that they have always prioritised giving people easy to understand, clear information about their safety and privacy policies, both the Children's Commissioner and I, along with a whole host of others believe that the odds are stacked against children online. Social media and online operating companies are global, private and operate beyond the reach of national laws. The teenagers taking the Children's Commissioner Terms and Conditions test (a 'mere' 17 pages and 5,ooo words long), can be forgiven, I think, for not knowing what they were signing up to. They are now the biggest users of a network that was not designed for them.

Of course, the first unofficial rule when your 'computer crashes' states: "in times of technical trouble, ask your child to help and they will cheerfully tempt your laptop back to life". No-one doubts their instinctive savvy when it comes to sorting the iPhone or troubleshooting your tablet. But children are children until they become adults, not until they pick up a smart phone. Despite its huge positives and potential, the online world is riddled with risk, particularly for the young and vulnerable.

Parents are understandably worried too. A quarter fear their children have been exposed to cyber threats in the past year according to a US study, and 18% had lost money or data from their personal device as a result of their child's unmonitored access. Cyber bullying, accessing inappropriate content, what personal information social media sites are gathering on our little ones, are all part of reason why so many of us have been and are now campaigning for legal limits. We want our children to grow up digitally safe and enlightened.

As part of this process, the Children's Commissioner asked my law firm Schillings to make the Terms and Conditions detailed in her report more child friendly. New data protection rules for children in the EU should become law in 2018 which we had in mind too, so our revamped version meets all the legal essentials. We then gave the same teenagers our new, shortened and simplified version - contained on one side of A4 - which we hoped would help them to understand the site rules more easily.

It made a difference. Once they realised how much they were giving away, most were shocked. Comments included:

"I'm surprised they would keep your personal data, even when you delete your account".

"They can keep, use and share your name, school and where you live, who you are flirting with, with other companies...I would use Direct Messaging a lot less, if I knew they could read them".

Kids' safety online is a worldwide worry. Australia now has a Children's E-safety Commissioner; in the US the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, works to protect the young, in the same way new regulation will in the EU in 2018. Meanwhile, encouraging children to talk about their online experiences, installing security software, applying settings that prevent in-app buying, to stop hefty unwanted bills, can all help. But, as any parent knows, and as Anne Longfield states in her report: "parents are always going to be on the back foot, which is why we need to take greater action to shift the balance of power towards children".

I'll leave you with some digital wisdom from one of our test-taking teenagers:

"They must know that no-one reads the Terms and Conditions. But if they made it more easy then people would actually read it, and think twice about the app. They write it like this so you can't understand it".