Not Too Cool for Privacy: Young Adults Monitor Their Digital Reputations


5.10.10 | When Facebook decided last week to open up its members’ information to third-party websites and applications (initially forcing members to “opt-out” of something that didn’t even know was happening rather than giving them to choice to “opt-in”), everyone began to fret anew about the lack of privacy in the online world—and social networking, in particular.

The conventional wisdom in these moments says that the younger generations are the ones most at risk, since they share their lives so openly and unreservedly.

New research, however, turns that conventional wisdom on its head, revealing that, in fact, the young adults are as or more active in protecting their privacy than their older counterparts. Laura Holson reports in The New York Times that an upcoming Pew Internet & American Life Project study finds “people in their 20s exert more control over their digital reputations than older adults, more vigorously deleting unwanted posts and limiting information about themselves.”

And a University of California, Berkeley, survey finds that “more than half the young adults questioned had become more concerned about privacy than they were five years ago — mirroring the number of people their parent’s age or older with that worry.”

One of the ways, Holson reveals, in which the younger generations keeps up-to-date about privacy concerns is through—you guessed it—social networking.

Sarah Perez at ReadWriteWeb picks up on this when she takes Consumers Reports to task for its own recent study about how social networking user are “oversharing” and endangering their own privacy.

The recommendations, writes Perez, while reasonable in many cases, shift too much of the blame and responsibility for the dangers onto social networking users: “It’s not just the users themselves who are to blame for this ‘risky’ online behavior. The networks have been created so that risk is a factor built into every sharing feature. Facebook especially is now exploiting its earlier, implicit agreement between itself and its users so that people are publicly sharing what they think is private information.”

In other words, it’s not the act of social networking itself that is the problem; it’s the attempt to profit off of social networking that has caused social networking providers to take risk with their users’ information. The Electronic Frontier Foundation traces this tendency in its timeline of “Facebook’s Eroding Privacy Policy.”

And it’s clear that the frequent fluctuations in privacy policy have caused many younger users to adopt a more cautious approach to what they share online. As Sam Jackson, a junior at Yale University, tells The Times: “I am much more self-censoring. I’ll try to be honest and forthright, but I am conscious now who I am talking to.”

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