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."
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.
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.
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.'"
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.