Jargon-busting guide to help youngsters understand social media small print

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A social media "jargon-buster" is to be distributed through schools across England to help children understand what they are signing up to when they join Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat and WhatsApp.

Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said social media giants have not done enough to make their sites transparent for children as she launched the guide to otherwise "impossible to understand" terms and conditions (T&Cs).

The guide is also designed to help teachers educate children about the value that their personal data holds for social media companies.

Instagram and Facebook logos on a smartphone
Instagram and Facebook can be easily accessed on a smartphone (Rui Vieira/PA)

It sets out how Snapchat can publicly display or sell any content a young person puts on Live or Local Snapchat, how Instagram can read Direct Messages, and explains how all companies collect a range of personal information such as the user's location and who is in their phone book.

Testing with a group of young people on the T&Cs of Instagram, which run to 17 pages and 5,000 words, found it was impossible for them to understand 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 office said.

Instagram is used by 56% of 12 to 15-year-olds and 43% of eight to 11-year-olds who have a social media account, according to Ofcom figures.

WhatsApp icon
Whatsapp is one of the apps included in the programme (Yui Mok/PA)

Ms Longfield said: "The social media giants have not done enough to make children aware of what they are signing up to when they install an app or open an account.

"These are often the first contracts a child signs in their life, yet the 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.

"These are large, multinational, billion-dollar companies who play a significant part in the lives of many young people.

Instagram logo
Instagram is used by 56% of 12 to 15-year-olds (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

"While they are starting to engage with these issues, and I am pleased that Facebook have said they are willing to work with me on making improvements, much more needs to be done by all of these companies to make them accountable and transparent."

Jenny Afia, a partner at specialist privacy law firm Schillings, which helped draw up the guide, said: "A child is a child until they're an adult, not when they create their first social media account.

"We have shown it's possible for social media providers to explain their terms and conditions in a way that young people are likely to understand them.

Really proud of this work https://t.co/CX8aMYSHXR

-- JennyAfia (@JennyAfia) September 24, 2017

"Until they do, young people will continue to unwittingly give away their personal and private information, with no real understanding of who is holding that information and what they are going to do with it.

"As with all walks of life, the protection of the youngest and most vulnerable in our society must come first. The same must now be said when it comes to protecting the privacy of young people online."

YouTube on a laptop
YouTube is a popular app with teenagers (John Stillwell/PA)

A Facebook spokeswoman said: "We want everyone to feel safe and secure when using Facebook. That's why we're working closely with safety experts, including the Children's Commissioner, to make sure that children and young people know how technology works and what they need to think about before sharing online.

"Our resources, such as our parent portal, privacy basics tool and safety centre, are easy to understand and used every day by young people and parents looking for clear and simple advice."