• Children often don’t know what they’re signing up to when they join Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp or Instagram
• Simplified T&Cs will go to thousands of teachers across England
• Guides designed to give children more power and information
• Commissioner calls for social media giants to be more transparent and accountable
Hardly a day passes without a report warning of the negative impact social media is having on the lives of children and young people. Cyber-bullying, grooming, control over content, the impact on mental health, the effect on body image, anxiety and depression – it’s becoming a minefield for parents, teachers and kids themselves. Many of us feel overwhelmed by the rapidly-changing digital world we live in and worry about how children are spending their time online.
But the fact is, the clock can’t be turned back. For children, there is no difference between online and offline life. To them, it’s just life. There’s no doubt that the internet and social media give children amazing opportunities to learn, to develop new skills, to make connections and friendships and to interact with others. We should not be afraid to embrace it.
At the same time, it’s the job of parents, teachers, policy-makers and, crucially, the big social media companies to make sure that children are making informed choices, are protected and are not left to wander around the digital world on their own. You wouldn’t drop a 12-year-old in the middle of a big city and expect them to fend for themselves. The same should be true online.
In January, I published a year-long study, ‘Growing Up Digital’ which highlighted how many children are not prepared for their digital lives. It made a number of recommendations to encourage teachers, parents, government and social media companies to do more to help children develop the skills they need.
Earlier this summer, I launched a ‘Digital 5 A Day’ campaign to keep children’s online lives healthy and to help educate children so they aren’t using the internet and social media like they would junk food. Parents and teachers tell me it has been a really useful resource. It also prompted a wider debate about children’s online use.
Today I’m launching the next step in my drive to give children the power, information and resilience they need to thrive in the digital world.
In ‘Growing Up Digital’ I called for mandatory Digital Citizenship in schools. The child-friendly guide and teacher resource we have developed with TES and the privacy law firm Schillings will help children to understand what they are signing up to when they use Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and WhatsApp and be a valuable resource for thousands of teachers across the country.
Children have the right to know what they are signing up to, in clear, simple, easy to understand language so that they can make the most of the fantastic opportunities social media and the internet can bring.
The social media giants have simply not done enough to make children aware of what they are signing up to when they install an app or open an account. Their terms and conditions are impenetrable, even to most adults. Children have absolutely no idea that they are giving away the right to privacy or the ownership of their data or the material they post online.
As part of our research into ‘Growing Up Digital’ we tested Instagram’s terms and conditions with a group of young people. Instagram is used by 56% of 12-15-year-olds and 43% of 8-11-year-olds who have a social media account. Their T&Cs run to 17 pages and 5,000 words and, not surprisingly, they proved impossible for young people to understand. None of the children we asked really understood that they were signing up to terms including a privacy waiver, tracking – even when the app is not in use – and the commercialisation of their personal data.
The simplified terms and conditions we’ve produced aren’t a legal document but are designed to be an accessible, child-friendly tool to help children understand their digital rights and make informed choices.
For example, they set out how Snapchat can publically display or sell any content young person puts on Live or Local Snapchat, meaning they can use a young person’s face and voice in any way, how Instagram can read a user’s Direct Messages and how all companies collect a range of person information including how long you spend on certain pages, where you are and who is in your phone book. They remind children that YouTube is owned by Google, so if you create a YouTube account, your data will be collected by Google and linked to other information Google has about you.
I want children to make the most of the internet, to be informed digital citizens who are able to hold social media companies to account. If we can rebalance the power between social media companies and children, which has so far been weighted in favour of the former, we will be making progress.
The large multi-national billion dollar companies who provide the most popular social media apps play a significant part in the lives of many young people. They have to do much more to be transparent, accountable and accessible. At the moment, while they are starting to engage with these issues, they are still not doing enough.
Nobody wants to ‘close down the internet’. Indeed, by working with children and experts in law and education I believe we are helping the internet giants to find a new way of communicating complex information to their younger users. It does though raise the question why they aren’t doing more to consider the needs of children and young people when developing their services. I wonder too why they need to be constantly reminded of their responsibilities and the help children need to really thrive online.
I hope they will get behind the resources we’ve produced today. Better still, they should produce their own simplified versions. We all need to work together to give children the best chances to live healthy online lives.