It’s one of the most common lies we all tell: I have read and agree to these terms and conditions (clicks accept). We all do it almost every time. We are presented with a massive list of different clauses that take at least five scrolls to get through. Then, we click accept without reading a single word. Learn how this leads to self-identity issues. 

I know I’m not using this platform wrong, so I can’t get in trouble, right? I have nothing to hide here so there’s no reason for me to care. These are the justifications I tell myself every time I accept any platform’s or company’s terms and conditions. And, I know I am not alone.

These terms and conditions have far more implications on us as individuals than we realize. Common, but somewhat unnoticed, technology is causing self-identity issues in this quick-to-agree world. The lines of individuality are blurring with every click. It’s time we all learn exactly what it is we are agreeing to, and how it affects us.

What Is Self-Identity and How Is It Shaped?

Self-identity is “how we define and see ourselves as unique individuals,” according to Jim Taylor, Ph.D., in Psychology Today. It’s a straightforward concept. How do you view yourself as a human being, based on who you are and your interactions with other human beings? 

There are two ways in which our self-identities are constructed. The first is based on our own personal experience. “As we develop self-awareness, we observe and evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and behavior based on past experience, current needs, and future goals,” says Taylor. In this discovery of self-identity, we are more in control. We base who we are off of who we have been and the decisions we have made. We also look at what we want for our future selves in order to create an identity that will help us achieve our goals. The second way is far more social, and recently, more influenced by technology. 

Self-Identity: Influenced by Social Media

Since its inception, sociologists and social scientists have consistently warned about the effects of social media. These effects go beyond just being addicted to apps on your phone and may cause destructive self-identity issues.

Taylor mentions two ways in which our self-identities are jeopardized by social media. The first is influenced by popular culture as it tells us what we should be rather than how we actually feel. “Popular culture manufactures ‘portraits’ of who it wants us to be,” explains Taylor. “Tapping into our most basic needs to feel good about themselves, accepted, and attractive, popular culture tells us what we should believe about ourselves.”

As our social worlds expand far beyond those who we immediately know, we lose control of how others see us. We can’t spend time developing a relationship with every one of our connections online, so instead, we create a snapshot of what we know will be viewed as accepted and liked based on popular culture. 

This leads to the second of the self-identity issues social media creates. “The goal for many now in their use of social media becomes how they can curry acceptance, popularity, status, and, by extension, self-esteem through their profiles and postings,” says Taylor. 

“Which photo do you think will get more likes?” “Does this caption make me sound funny or desperate?” These questions are the basis of our online selves. Social media allows us to create a persona online that is nothing like our true selves.

This façade jeopardizes our self-identities and blurs the lines of individuality as we all strive to be the same and liked, rather than unique and ignored online.

Self-Identity and Big Data

Social media perpetuates self-identity issues that are already known and publicized. But, what about the online portfolio of yourself that you never meant to create? Enter I have read and accept these terms and conditions and Veronica Barassi.

Barassi is an anthropologist, TEDxMileHigh speaker, and avid advocate for data rights as human rights. In her 2019 talk, she spoke on the hidden agenda many big data companies have when it comes to the information we agree to share online. “Every day, every week, we agree to terms and conditions. And when we do this, we provide companies with the lawful right to do whatever they want with our data,” says Barassi.

“Individuals are not only being tracked, they are also being profiled on the basis of their data traces,” Barassi explains. She adds that these profiles are sold to companies like banks, insurance companies, even college admission offices—and used in data-driven decisions. 

This is how the advertisement for those Nike shoes you like pops up in your feed. You searched for and viewed the homepage of the gym that opened up down the street, and you’ve already agreed to let Google track your searches. Now Nike knows you’re looking to join a gym, and so you must need new shoes. Sounds kind of convenient, right?

What happens when you apply for a job, and the company you want to work for makes their decision to hire you based on your online profile, rather than learning who you really are? What if you apply for and are refused a bank loan because the bank based their decision off of your online purchase history, or even factors indicative of ethnicity and class?

These categorizations create self-identity issues with long-term impacts. Companies and institutions base crucial decisions on our online selves without considering human experience.

You probably didn’t really mean what you said about your high school principal in that tweet when you were fifteen. But, now you’ve been denied from your dream college because the admissions board has it in your profile and finds it offensive.  This happened because you agreed to Twitter’s terms and conditions to share your profile with third party companies without really understanding what you were doing.

“The data that is being collected from [my daughters] today may be used to judge them in their future and can come to prevent their hopes and dreams,” says Barassi. 

Think Before You Click

We are mindlessly agreeing to let data companies create an identity for us based on our online decisions. We may have control over the facade we create of ourselves on social media, but we sign away that control with one, dangerous check of a box. We need to stop agreeing to terms and conditions we don’t understand. Barassi demands more. 

“What we need now is actually political solutions. We need governments to recognize that our data rights are our human rights.”

Barassi calls on us to demand greater justice for our human rights. We cannot hope to protect ourselves from data companies without some kind of legislation in place to help us do so. 

What can you do before this happens? Educate yourself. Read, or at least skim, the terms and conditions page for any red flags before clicking agree. Call out those companies and their unethical clauses so more people can understand before they agree to the same conditions. 

Yes, your photo got plenty of likes. But, there are far more people who have access to that photo than you realize thanks to that five-scroll-long page that no one bothers to read. It’s time to read that page, or refuse to press the button.