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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

What "Young People" Think--And Do--about Privacy

hands with a cellphone

hands with a cellphone

The Retreat From Sharing

Irina Raicu

This essay first appeared in Re/code on Nov. 2, 2016.

For some time now, conventional wisdom has claimed that young people don’t care about privacy. As it happens, that conventional wisdom had always been, at best, an oversimplification; by now, it is simply wrong.

To begin with, though, a clarifying question: what do you mean by “young people”? For example, three recently published studies on youth and privacy assess different age groups. In a recent survey called “The State of Privacy in Post-Snowden America,” the Pew Research Trust brackets 18-29-year-olds as “young adults.” Another recent study, titled “Keeping Up with Generation App,” by the National Cyber Security Alliance, surveyed 13-17-year-olds. And in a third, described in an article titled “’What Can I Really Do?’ Explaining the Privacy Paradox with Online Apathy” (published in the International Journal of Communication), researchers Eszter Hargittai and Alice Marwick examine “’young adults’ understanding of Internet privacy issues”—based on data gathered from focus groups with participants aged 19-35.

When people talk about young people and privacy, it’s useful, first, to point out that the privacy-related attitudes, concerns, and practices of 13-year-olds are, as you might imagine, quite different from those of 35-year-olds.

Still, what the three studies cited above all demonstrate is that people between 13 and 35 do care about keeping some control over their information, and take measures to protect their privacy online, even as they sense that most such measures are imperfect solutions.

It may surprise you to find out that 60% of the teens surveyed for the NCSA report “say they have created accounts that their parents were unaware of, such as on a social media site or for an app….” That is a privacy-protective measure: when it comes to privacy violations, the people whom teens are most worried about are their parents. As the report notes, “teens greatly value having some level of privacy from their parents when using the internet.”

The older “young people” surveyed by Hargittai and Marwick report that they deploy a wide variety of privacy-protective measures: “using different sites and apps for different purposes, configuring settings on social media sites, using pseudonyms in certain situations, switching between multiple accounts, turning on incognito options in their browsers, opting out of certain apps of sites, deleting cookies, and even using Do-Not-Track browser plugins and password-management apps.” How many “older adults” do such things?

The Pew Research study notes that “young adults generally are more focused than their elders when it comes to online privacy.” That study asked about some privacy-protective strategies, as well: among the 18-29-year-olds surveyed, 74% said they had cleared cookies and browser histories; 71% had deleted or edited something they had posted; 49% had configured their browsers to reject cookies; 42% had decided not to use certain sites that demanded their real names; and 41% had used temporary user names or email addresses. In each of those categories, the younger users surpassed their elders. The Pew report does also note that younger adults “are more likely to have shared personal information online”—but then, they grew up with the opportunity to do so—an opportunity their elders didn’t have.

At Santa Clara University, my colleague Laura Robinson and I have also done several informal small-scale surveys trying to gauge students’ attitudes toward online privacy and their awareness of ways in which they might protect it. Recently, for example, we asked a group of 26, all of whom were between 18 and 24 years old, about managing privacy on social media. (Needless to say, they were surveyed anonymously.) Of those, 92% reported having monitored and adjusted their privacy settings; 70% had used different social media platforms to communicate with different groups; 42% had limited the number of friends/connections they had on each particular platform; 42% had also chosen not to use certain platforms at all due to privacy reasons; and 31% had installed ad blockers that prevent online tracking.

More startlingly, perhaps, 92% reported that they limit the kinds of things that they post online. This echoes one of the findings of the Hargittai/Marwick study: “While virtually all of our participants had adopted different approaches to protecting privacy, the only widely agreed-upon technique was self-censoring, or leaving information off the Internet entirely.” Hargittai and Marwick add that “as users understand their lack of control over their information [online], they retreat in certain ways when it comes to sharing.”

For most of us, attitudes about the sharing of personal information change as we get older. As Bianka Bosker notes in “The Oversharers are Over Sharing,”

My generation, the first on Facebook, was supposed to grow into a noisy army of oversharers. Raised on a steady diet of social media TMI, we were expected to lump fuddy-duddy ideas about privacy and discretion in with bell-bottoms and shoulder pads…. At the rate we were going back then, and judging by the way adults rolled their eyes at us, we should be broadcasting from the bathroom by now.

But when I poke through 10 years of Facebook, I see something else altogether. We’re not an oversharing generation. We’re a generation that’s over sharing — done, finished, kaput, through. … All the chatty candor and hyperactive disclosure of our early years on Facebook now look like just another kind of youthful indulgence…

As it turns out, though, that “youthful indulgence” might have been a temporary luxury. It’s not just getting older that makes us less chatty and less likely to disclose ourselves; better understanding of the current internet environment makes young people wary, too, even when they wish they could say more. In fact, young people might now be rolling their eyes at their elders.


Photo by Summery Skyes 11, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Nov 30, 2016

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