Kids Need to Stop Signing Over Rights to Social Media Companies

CC BY 2.0. Anthony Kelly

Children do it all the time, but they don't understand what they're doing. That's why adults need to step in.

Parental guidance seems to disappear when it comes to children’s online lives. According to a year-long study published this month by the UK Children’s Commissioner, far too many children sign over rights to their private online messages and photos on social media accounts without understanding what they’re doing, nor the potential implications.

Although social media companies such as Instagram and Facebook do provide terms and conditions that must be read before agreement, these are usually far too lengthy and confusing for children to understand. Like many adults, they skim through in order to proceed, eager to connect with others. The Guardian reports:

“Instagram, the photo sharing social media site used by more than half of 12- to 15-year-olds, and 48 percent of eight- to 11-year-olds, had terms and conditions that none of the young children in the taskforce’s focus group could fully understand. Only half of the eight- to 11-year-olds could even read the terms, which ran to more than 5,000 words on 17 pages of text.”

The children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, insists that this must change. The report published by the “Growing Up Digital” taskforce that she convened has made three policy recommendations to improve the safety of children on the Internet, which “was not designed [25 years ago] with children in mind.”

First, the commissioner recommends that terms and conditions be written in ‘plain English’ so that kids will understand.

Lawyer Jenny Afia did precisely this for the report, rewriting Instagram’s rules in child-friendly language. Some examples of what she wrote (emphasis by Quartz):

“Officially you own any original pictures and videos you post, but we are allowed to use them, and we can let others use them as well, anywhere around the world. Other people might pay us to use them and we will not pay you for that.
“We may keep, use and share your personal information with companies connected with Instagram. This information includes your name, email address, school, where you live, pictures, phone number, your likes and dislikes, where you go, who your friends are, how often you use Instagram, and any other personal information we find such as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages (DMs).”

Children were understandably shocked. One 13-year-old told the commissioner’s group that she was going to delete Instagram “because it’s weird.”

Second, the commissioner wants a compulsory “digital citizenship program” for kids ages 4 to 14.

Taught by older kids and teachers, it would focus on knowing one’s digital rights and learning how to engage and disengage online when necessary.

Third, there should be a new position created for a Children’s Digital Ombudsman to liaise between parents and social media companies.

This person would represent the children’s rights to companies. It would also give children an effective channel for reporting illegal behaviour online, since many told the commission that their complaints about sexting and stalking have gone unheard by Instagram.

What’s unfortunate is that online education is not happening at home, due in large part to the fact that most adults are willingly signing over their own rights without understanding the terms. These same adults, as parents, post videos and photos of their children online, without their kids’ consent or even awareness. While the commissioner’s recommendations are sensible, there’s a much greater cultural shift needed toward skepticism and privacy in general; and parents need to step up to fill the gap in education that currently exists. In the words of Sarah Champion, a Labour cabinet minister:

“We have to recognise children are growing up immersed in a digital world. We owe it to them to do all we can to educate and support them to the risks they face in the virtual world, just as we do in the real world.”

Anything less is wholly irresponsible, for children are ill-prepared to fend for themselves in the digital world.