Children are being left to fend for themselves in the digital world, regularly signing over rights to their private messages and pictures unknowingly and with scant advice from parents or schools, according to Englandâs childrenâs commissioner.
Almost half of eight- to 11-year-olds have agreed impenetrable terms and conditions to give social media giants such as Facebook and Instagram control over their data, without any accountability, according to the commissionerâs Growing Up Digital taskforce.
The year-long study found children regularly signed up to terms including waiving privacy rights and allowing the content they posted to be sold around the world, without reading or understanding their implications.
Childrenâs commissioner Anne Longfield said children needed a specialist ombudsman to represent their rights to social media companies and recommended a broader digital citizenship programme should be obligatory in every school from ages four to 14.
Instagram, the photo sharing social media site used by more than half of 12- to 15-year-olds, and 48% of eight- to 11-year-olds, had terms and conditions that none of the young children in the taskforceâs 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.
Privacy law expert Jenny Afia, a partner at Schllings, rewrote the terms so they could be more easily understood by children, including advice that â[Instagram] is allowed to use any pictures you post and 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 thatâ.
Instagram can share with other companies any personal information about users, âsuch as your birthday or who you are chatting with, including in private messages.
âWe can force you to give up your username for any reason,â the re-written terms and conditions say.
Children found the new terms far easier to understand, with many shocked at the extent of the appâs rights. Several said they would delete or reconsider using the app. âIâm deleting Instagram because itâs weird,â one 13-year-old told the group.
âThey write like this so you canât understand it, because then you might think differently,â another 13-year-old girl said.
Afia said: âThe situation is serious, young people are unwittingly giving away personal information with no real understanding of who is holding that information, where they are holding it and what they are going to do with it.â
She said the simplified terms would have the same, if not stronger legal standing that the current phrasing of the terms. âAt the moment there is a very good case to say a child is not giving informed consent,â she told the Guardian.
âIf a child had a dispute with Instagram, the first argument would be that they did not give consent because they did not understand it.â
Afia said that it was concerning companies might appear not to want children to read their terms. âChildren thought differently about using the services,â she said. âWe want more awareness, which we hope will lead to pressure to improve the services.
Children reported futile attempts to report concerns about social media, even when behaviour might be illegal, such as underage sexting or stalking. One cited a social media account that persistently asked 13-year-old girls to send naked photos.
âSomeone was asking loads of the girls in my school for nudes, everyone reported it about 100 times and the account is still there,â one girl told the taskforce. âThey have literally done nothing about it. Also he sent indecent images of himself which I swear is illegal and nothing happens.â
Children said they were often tricked into seeing lewd pictures. âYouâll click on a hashtag like #beautygiveaways and then see, like, a dick pic,â one 12-year-old girl said.
Instagramâs EMEA head of policy Michelle Napchan said the app prioritised giving clear information about safety and privacy policies that could be accessed from mobile phones. âWe recognise in many cases, when people need help, they want it when theyâre using the app,â she said.
âThat is why we go beyond our terms and guidelines to offer in-app safety and privacy help – from reporting, to industry-leading comment tools and self-help resources. We have also produced a guide for parents to help them talk to their teenagers about internet safety.â
The company requires users to be over the age of 13 and it says it has a trained team of reviewers that oversee the removal of inappropriate posts 24/7.
Longfield said children now spent half their leisure time in an environment which had very little regulation, controlled by a small number of powerful organisations.
âIt is wholly irresponsible to let them roam in a world for which they are ill-prepared,â she said. âIt is vital that children understand what they agree to when joining social media platforms, that their privacy is better protected, and they can have content posted about them removed quickly should they wish to.â
Longfield said she hoped the government would extend the power of the childrenâs commissionerâs office to give it independent oversight of the number and type of complaints that social media providers are receiving from young people.
âWhen it was created 25 years ago, the internet was not designed with children in mind,â she said.
The taskforce â which also included the BBCâs children director, Alice Webb, and Liam Hackett, founder of the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label â also revealed a sharp rise in internet use by children as young as three.
Children aged between three and four spent an average of eight hours and 18 minutes on the internet a week, almost an hour-and-a-half longer than the average in 2015. By their early teens, children spend more than 20 hours a week online, the taskforce said.
The taskforce recommended the appointment of a specialist digital ombudsman who could act as a mediator between children and social media companies over the removal of sensitive content. It also said the government should consider implementing legislation protecting childrenâs privacy and data online, similar to what is being proposed by the EU.
Sarah Champion, the Labour shadow cabinet minister who recently wrote a report recommending an overhaul of sex education to put more emphasis on digital risks such as online grooming, said: âThis report is yet more evidence that the government arenât doing enough to equip children with the skills and knowledge to stay safe online.
âWe 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.â
A government spokesman said it was investing Â£4.5 million in a new computing curriculum, which included e-safety. âThe internet has given children and young people fantastic opportunities, but protecting them from risks they might face online or on their phones is vital,â the spokesman said.
âThe UK is a world leader in internet safety, but there is more to do, and we will carefully consider this report as part of our ongoing work to make the internet a safer place for children.â