The Children’s Commissioner for England has released a report which identifies the fact that most students don’t understand the terms and conditions of the internet services they sign up for and use but this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The report as referenced in an article published by ITV identifies that students find terms and conditions of social media sites “impenetrable”. Having myself looked at some site terms and conditions I find this far from surprising. The terms and conditions are largely written from a legal perspective to cover the provider against litigation and therefore tend to be quite long in length, quite complex in language and also written for those with a legal background or approaching from a legal perspective as opposed to a lay person never mind a child. The terms and conditions are written for their perceived user, being a lawyer hoping to sue or seek damages or a lawyer defending against such a suit. They are not designed to be informative to the end user of the service in relation to informing them as to their rights and responsibilities, unless the end user has hired a lawyer and is pursuing a suit.
An article on the ISC website written by Caroline Dunn, a deputy head teacher, hits the nail on the head in stating that adults “do not necessarily have a greater understanding of emerging technologies” than the children referenced in the commissioner’s report. The Children’s commissioner had focused on the fact that terms and conditions were not written with children in mind, yet children were using the services to which these terms relate. For me, and for Mrs Dunn, the focus was too narrow as in reality the majority of adults are no better able to understand these terms and conditions. If we consider that adults model behaviour which students will follow, it is concerning that adults often accept terms without reading them, plus also are unable to understand them even should they choose to read them. I must include myself in the above.
The issue being discussed here is not related to the education of children to use the internet safely. I do however acknowledge that for children this is even more important in relation to safeguarding. It is regarding the need for any user, adult or child, to understand their rights and responsibilities with regards using a service. Clearly the terms do not meet this need as they are aimed at those of a legal background. The BBC reported on a government select committee back in 2014 identifying that terms where often too long and complex however the report from the Children’s commissioner seems to suggest that little or no progress has been made since then. I believe this is due to the fact that services will always need to have some legal protection, in the form of terms and conditions, to protect them where someone seeks legal recourse against a service.
It also worries me the focus on a perceived issue in relation to children when in fact that issue is bigger in scale. The issue includes adults as well who are no better at understanding a services terms. We see a similar tendency in relation to online privacy and safety, with a focus on the dangers to children when in fact the issue is much bigger and impacts on adults as well. It could be that the danger to children is perceived as larger hence the focus on children, however equally it could just be sensational reporting. Also how can we address the dangers associated with internet use by children, if the adults, their parents, who are the ones present at home when children do the majority of their internet surfing don’t truly understand the technology or the terms and conditions.
In relation to the terms and conditions issue I wonder whether the answer is as simple as a rights and responsibilities statement for each service in addition to their legal terms and conditions. This would be written in understandable language, accessible to the average person including children. In relation to the wider issues with regards understanding the implications of using a particular service I don’t have an answer, as clearly there is a requirement either to change the internet, good luck with that, or to educate or train internet and service users in general, which is ambitious to say the least. We continue to learn the good and bad of the internet through using it!
Social Media told to simplify terms and conditions (Nov 2014), http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-30234789
Children ‘left to fend for themselves’ against bullying and grooming online (Jan 2017), http://www.itv.com/news/2017-01-05/children-left-to-fend-for-themselves-against-bullying-and-grooming-online/
The internet is not designed for children… or adults! (Jan 2017), https://www.isc.co.uk/media-enquiries/isc-blogs/the-internet-is-not-designed-for-children-or-adults/