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All the dirty laundry younger people seem to air on social networks these days might lead older Americans to conclude that today’s tech-savvy generation doesn’t care about privacy.
Such an assumption fits happily with declarations that privacy is dead, as online marketers and social sites such as Facebook try to persuade people to share even more about who they are, what they are thinking and where they are at any given time.
But it’s not quite true, a new study finds. Despite mounds of anecdotes about college students sharing booze-chugging party photos, posting raunchy messages and badmouthing potential employers online, young adults generally care as much about privacy as older Americans.
The report, from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, is among the first quantitative studies looking at young people’s attitudes toward privacy as government officials and corporate executives alike increasingly grapple with such issues.
Here’s the abstract:
"Media reports teem with stories of young people posting salacious photos online, writing about alcohol-fueled misdeeds on social networking sites, and publicizing other ill-considered escapades that may haunt them in the future. These anecdotes are interpreted as representing a generation-wide shift in attitude toward information privacy. Many commentators therefore claim that young people “are less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people are.” Surprisingly, though, few empirical investigations have explored the privacy attitudes of young adults. This report is among the first quantitative studies evaluating young adults’ attitudes. It demonstrates that the picture is more nuanced than portrayed in the popular media.
"In this telephonic (wireline and wireless) survey of internet using Americans (N=1000), we 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 did answer in the direction of older adults. There clearly is social significance in that large numbers of young adults agree with older Americans on issues of information privacy.
"A gap in privacy knowledge provides one explanation for the apparent license with which the young behave online. 42 percent of young Americans answered all of our five online privacy questions incorrectly. 88 percent answered only two or fewer correctly. The problem is even more pronounced when presented with offline privacy issues – post hoc analysis showed that young Americans were more likely to answer no questions correctly than any other age group.
"We conclude then that 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."
The findings produced instant reaction:
"It is going to counter a lot of assumptions that have been made about young adults and their attitudes toward privacy," said Mary Madden, senior researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. She was not part of the study but reviewed the report for The Associated Press.
Among the findings:
• Eighty-eight percent of people of all ages said they have refused to give out information to a business because they thought it was too personal or unnecessary. Among young adults, 82 percent have refused, compared with 85 percent of those over 65.
• Most people — 86 percent — believe that anyone who posts a photo or video of them on the Internet should get their permission first, even if that photo was taken in public. Among young adults 18 to 24, 84 percent agreed — not far from the 90 percent among those 45 to 54.
• Forty percent of adults ages 18 to 24 believe executives should face jail time if their company uses someone’s personal information illegally — the same as the response among those 35 to 44 years old.
The survey, based on a 2009 telephone survey of 1,000 Americans 18 and older, did find some areas with generational differences in attitudes. For example, while 69 percent of all respondents said a company should be fined more than $2,500 for privacy violations, only 54 percent of those 18 to 24 years old thought the fine should be that steep.
Even so, the majority of young people generally agreed with their older counterparts in wanting more privacy, not less.
"Yes, there are some young people who are posting racy photographs and personal information. But those anecdotes might not represent what the average young person is doing online," said Chris Hoofnagle, co-author of the study and director of information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.
Although they grew up in the digital age, young people know surprisingly little about their rights to online privacy, the study found. They seem more confident than older adults that the government would protect them, even though U.S. privacy laws offer few such safeguards.
The lack of knowledge about the law, coupled with an online environment that encourages people to share personal information, may be one reason young people can seem careless about privacy, according to the study, which was conducted in July 2009 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
There is also some evidence that, by virtue of their age, adolescents and young adults’ brains are hard-wired toward risky behavior, the report said, citing past psychological studies.
The researchers suggest that lawmakers and educators should not assume that young adults do not care about privacy and therefore don’t need protections.
Rather, they say, "policy discussions should acknowledge that the current business environment … 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."
Yet that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe all the stories about younger people prolifically posting photos of their beer-guzzling, scantily clad selves.
"But there is not enough research to find out (whether) older people do the same thing," said Joseph Turow, professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. "Older adults, they may not show up naked, but they may be releasing other kinds of (personal) information."