Privacy No Joke to Young Web Users

Amid all the controversy over online privacy, one thing has been treated as an almost universal given: Young people don’t care about privacy the way their cautious, conservative elders do.

As it turns out, the meme is kind of wrong.

Younger Internet users are just as likely as many adults to worry about the amount of information about themselves that’s posted online, are less trusting of social networking services than their elders and are the only age group whose members say they limit availability of online information about themselves as much as they did three years ago, according to a survey conducted for the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Despite the common perception in the media that young Internet users carelessly post pictures of themselves nude and drunk, along with their telephone numbers and home addresses, the Pew study actually seems to confirm other recent research suggesting that younger users are much more careful stewards of their online images than many had thought.

Users Should Have Control

For instance, an April survey released by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley found that while 18-to -24-year-olds have significantly larger “digital footprints” than older Internet users, large majorities of them have joined older counterparts in refusing to give information to businesses on privacy grounds and believe they should have to grant permission before photos of themselves can be posted to the Internet.

They also support laws that give users access to review information about them stored by Web services and require companies to delete stored information when asked, according to the study.

Among other things, the Pew study found that 71 percent of social networking users aged 18 to 29 have changed their privacy settings to limit what they share — no mean feat in the age of Facebook privacy settings with dozens of options.

Share With Care

That younger users are active managers of their online reputations really shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s ever lived with or known a self-conscious teen-ager, said Mary Madden, the Pew senior research specialist who wrote the privacy report.

“Young adults’ use of social media also takes place during a very unique time of life when the social motivations for sharing information among peers is very strong, and there’s a lot of attention paid to self-presentation,” she told TechNewsWorld. “In many regards, our data shows that young adults have more personal information to manage, so they may be more active reputation managers out of necessity.

The study also found that nearly the same percentages of 18- to-24-year-olds and 50- to-64-year-olds worry about the amount of information available about themselves online, according to the survey. Both groups are out-worried by 30- to 49-year-olds by 8 percentage points.

Are You Listening, Facebook?

Perhaps most surprisingly, the survey revealed that young users are the least trusting when it come to social networking sites, giving more stature even to news Web sites than social services.

Among survey respondents, 28 percent of social networking service users aged 18-29 said they never trust such sites, compared to 19 percent of users 20-49 and 14 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds.

The implications for services such as Facebook, which Tuesday announced an overhaul of its privacy settings to make them simpler and easier to customize, are clear, said Madden.

Such services, should listen to what young, tech-savvy users want, she said.

Pew’s findings are based on telephone surveys conducted in August and September 2009. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

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