Debunking the myth: Young Adults Do Care About Online Privacy

Contrary to popular claim that young people “are less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people are”, a UC Berkley study found “that large percentages of young adults (those 18-24 years) are in harmony with older Americans regarding concerns about online privacy, norms, and policy suggestions. In several cases, there are no statistically significant differences between young adults and older age categories on these topics. Where there were differences, over half of the young adult-respondents answered in the direction of older adults.

While participation in social networks is still high, the findings show that over half the young adults surveyed are more concerned about privacy now than they were five years ago. A finding that mirrors the percentage of people their parent’s age or older with that worry.

For example, the research found that a large majority of young adults:

  • Have refused to give information to a business in cases where they felt it was too personal or not necessary
  • Believe anyone who uploads a photo of them to the internet should get their permission first, even if taken in public
  • Believe there should be a law that gives people the right to know all the information websites know about them
  • Believe there should be a law that requires websites to delete all stored information about an individual
  • Are just as likely as older users to read privacy policies and delete browser cookies, and are nearly as likely to abort a purchase because of privacy concerns with the e-commerce site.

They study also highlights three key reasons young adults are more inclined to over-share information online. 1) young adults are shockingly uninformed about their lack of right-to-privacy 2) youth, and to a lesser extent young adults, are more inclined to take risks, bow to peer pressure, and ignore consequences, and 3) social networks, by their very design encourage increasing the amount of information shared over time.

Answering questions about privacy, the survey found that higher proportions of 18-24 year olds believe incorrectly that the law protects their privacy online and offline more than it actually does, In fact, the lack of understanding about privacy among young adults was abysmal.

A whopping 42% of young Americans answered all five online privacy questions incorrectly, and only 12% answered 3 or more of the questions correctly.

Based on these scores, the researchers concluded that “This lack of knowledge [about privacy] in a tempting environment, rather than a cavalier lack of concern regarding privacy, may be an important reason large numbers of them engage with the digital world in a seemingly unconcerned manner.”

Combining this research’s findings with another piece of research, Peer Influence on Risk Taking, Risk Preference, the study finds that youth’s developmental stage also plays a clear role in their increased willingness to take risks with privacy. Unsurprisingly, the youngest teens (13-16), show the highest likelihood to succumb to peer pressure and risk taking behaviors as the need to be cool online outweighs concerns over long-term consequences. This risk taking drops significantly as youth mature into young adults.

Compounding the risks of over-sharing among youth is the very design and dynamic of social networks that actively encourage users to share increasing the amount of information shared over time.

The study’s conclusion speaks volumes:

“In policy circles, it has become almost a cliché to claim that young people do not care about privacy. Certainly there are many troubling anecdotes surrounding young individuals’ use of the internet, and of social networking sites in particular.

Nevertheless, we found that in large proportions young adults do care about privacy… We suggest, then, that young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy even while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.”

Policy discussions should acknowledge that the current business environment along with other factors sometimes encourages young adults to release personal data in order to enjoy social inclusion even while in their most rational moments they may espouse more conservative norms.

Education alone is probably not enough for young adults to reach aspirational levels of privacy. They likely need multiple forms of help from various quarters of society, including perhaps the regulatory arena, to cope with the complex online currents that aim to contradict their best privacy instincts.

Here is the link to the full research report: How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?

Youth do care, and businesses had better take notice.



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