Putting a kid-friendly filter on Instagram's terms of use

Dan Misener explains why a task force rewrote Instagram's terms of service to make them easier for kids to understand.

How rewriting the photo-sharing site's terms of use could better protect kids online

Imagine reading terms of use before agreeing to them. (Karly Domb Sado/Associated Press)

It's the biggest lie on the web. When most people click the box that says "I have read and understood the terms of service,"  they haven't. And according to a new report from the children's commissioner in England, that's especially problematic for children and teenagers.

The report, called "Growing Up Digital," found kids often sign up for a lot more than they imagined — from how their personal data is handled to what they can and can't do online. A big part of the report focuses on how so many sites and services online are controlled by companies that, in the commissioner's view, have "too little responsibility towards children."

Teens found Instagram's terms of use too long and boring to read through. (Ahn Young-joon/Associated Press)

Instagram's terms of use singled out as problematic

One of their examples is Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing site. And in particular, the site's terms of use:  that long list of rules you agree to when you sign up for a new account. The commissioner's task force did two things with these terms of use. First, they showed them to a group of teenagers and asked the teens to read them all the way through. They also had a law firm rewrite Instagram's terms of use in a simplified form. Then they created a more straightforward version designed to be easier for children and teenagers to understand.

Privacy lawyer and member of the Growing Up Digital task force Jenny Afia said the teenagers were asked to read Instagram's current terms of use, from beginning to end. She describes the response that received: "'Oh my God, these are so boring! Why are you making us read this? It's taken me half an hour and I'm only on the first few pages; do I really have to continue?' They are not at all user-friendly even for adults, but particularly for children."

The report says after 20 minutes of reading, the 13-year-olds had only gotten halfway through the current terms and conditions and were begging to be allowed to stop. It also suggests that, even though they'd read the terms, they didn't necessarily understand what they meant for their privacy.

When teens read a simplified version of Instagram's terms of use, some were shocked by the site's requirements. (Associated Press)

How were the rewritten terms of use different from the original?

For one, the simplified version was a lot shorter than the original. As opposed to 17 pages and 5,000 words, the simplified version was presented on a single page and was just under 900 words. Word choice was another difference. There are a number of ways to measure the readability of a document where you measure the total number of words, the length of sentences and the number of syllables.

Instagram's original terms of use got a fairly low readability score, and the report says they included "language and sentence structure that only a postgraduate could be expected to understand." Whereas the simplified version scored much higher for readability and "matched the level expected of a 12,13-year-old." 

How did teenagers respond to the simplified terms of use?

Afia said: "When we showed them the simplified one-pager, their reactions were really different and they were saying things like 'Oh my gosh, I didn't realize that's what they were doing. It's a bit creepy. Why should they be allowed to do all of this with my stuff?' And even some people saying: 'I am going to think twice about using these kinds of sites.'"  

More user-friendly terms of service could result in more people reading and understanding the terms to which they're agreeing. (Tamara Pimentel/CBC)

Would more people actually read the terms of service if they were simpler?

Recent research out of York University suggests "information overload" is a significant negative predictor of whether someone will read the terms of service when they sign up for a new service. It also found that, when presented with terms of service that should take an average adult 16 minutes to read, the few people who bothered to read it spent on average only 51 seconds. So, most adults don't read the terms of service, and most adults will likely continue to not read the terms of service.

But for children, who are particularly vulnerable —  especially when it comes to online privacy — the hope is that simpler, more straightforward policies can at least encourage more people to read and understand and to spark conversations with parents and other adults about online privacy and safety.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.