Social media terms of service putting children at risk, warns privacy advocate

Here’s why

New research into the wording of terms and conditions used by social media giants like Twitter and Snapchat suggests children are unlikely to comprehend the amount of personal data they are sharing.

Internet privacy advocate BestVPN.com is calling for social media platforms to make their data privacy terms clearer after finding most are incomprehensible to younger children, despite them being legally able to sign up for an account. As a result, they may not realise what power these brands have to share their personal information and track them.

The company analysed the terms of services from five of the most popular social media platforms, including Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook. It found the majority had a higher reading grade level than the minimum sign up age, which is 13 years old for most social media sites.

Using a method called the Flesch Reading Ease Formula, the majority of terms scored between 35 and 44, which is considered to be a difficult read. A score of 90-100 would be easily understood, while 0-30 is comprehensible to university graduates.

Instagram had the most difficult-to-read terms, with a score of 35.66, while Facebook scored 42.56. Twitter wasn’t far behind with 43.8. Snapchat was the easiest to read, with 53.34. WhatsApp, whose minimum sign up age is 16, scored 44.01.

Facebook does provide a clearer version of its data privacy terms separately, but that still scores just 45.37.

In comparison, BestVPN.com found an abstract for a molecular physics paper to score 33.34. A chapter from Dostoyevsky’s White Nights – the famed Russian author considered to be a tough read – scored 63.08, making it an easier reading level than all of the privacy terms studied.

To raise awareness among parents of the risks posed to children using social media, BestVPN.com created the Social Media Privacy Index, which breaks down in simple terms how companies like Facebook and Snapchat can track users both online and offline and share personal data with businesses.

The company argues that features like Snapchat’s Snap Map, which logs the exact location of a user when the app is opened, can put younger users at risk if they don’t understand how the app works.

Douglas Crawford, privacy expert at BestVPN.com, said:

“We don’t want to put people off using social media, but it’s important that people, especially parents, know what they’re getting into when they sign up.

“For most of these platforms, the minimum sign up age is 13. However, the way terms and conditions are worded could be confusing for young users. We would like to see social media companies simplify these terms and be more up front about how they use data and track people. Facebook has done this with its data privacy conditions, which is a good first step, but much more needs to be done.

We created the Social Media Privacy Index to look at this concern and explain what these terms and conditions mean to everyday users. I think many will find the results troubling.”

The full Social Media Privacy Index report can be found on BestVPN.com’s website: https://www.bestvpn.com/privacy-news/social-media-privacy-index/

Flesch Grades

ScoreSchool LevelNotes
100.00-90.005th gradeVery easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.
90.0–80.06th gradeEasy to read. Conversational English for consumers.
80.0–70.07th gradeFairly easy to read.
70.0–60.08th & 9th gradePlain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.
60.0–50.010th to 12th gradeFairly difficult to read.
50.0–30.0CollegeDifficult to read.
30.0–0.0College GraduateVery difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.

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