Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion?

May 11, 2010 / Culture, Life, Media, Tech /

Privacy isn’t to be taken for granted in an increasingly ‘jacked in’ world, and many are taking cue.

Last week’s security lapse that exposed personal Facebook chats was embarrassing for both the social media giant and its users, materializing  many’s most salient concerns about sharing private information over the social Web.

Personal lives are broadcasted across online social networks. Are young people more apt to act with indiscretion? Conventional wisdom says 'yes'; recent studies say 'no'.

The New York Times’ Laura M. Holson recently reports, however, that the tell-all generation (those between 18 and 29-years-old) is learning to keep things offline. Holson writes:

The conventional wisdom suggests that everyone under 30 is comfortable revealing every facet of their lives online, from their favorite pizza to most frequent sexual partners. But many members of the tell-all generation are rethinking what it means to live out loud.

Young adults in their 20s, in fact, more frequently delete unwanted posts and more actively limit profile information, according to a soon-to-be released report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. This fact, the report suggests, is indicative of heightened diligence among young adults in exerting control over their digital reputations.

Says Mary Madden, lead researcher on the forthcoming Pew report:

“Social networking requires vigilance, not only in what you post, but what your friends post about you. Now you are responsible for everything.”

Recent academic research by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and UC Berkeley’s Center for Law and Technology attest to young adults’ online vigilance. In the UC Berkeley study, which explores how young adults differ from their elders when it comes to information privacy attitudes and policies, the sentiments are especially clear:

  • 88 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds believe laws should require websites to delete their stored information;
  • and 62 percent say they think laws should require that people have access to what websites know about them.

Interestingly, as Holson highlighted, this runs counter to conventional wisdom about young adults’ online behavior on social media. The Berkeley study succinctly describes the misconception, which is fueled by frequent media coverage of the risks of social networking:

“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.”

According to the study, however, the apparent license with which the young behave online stems from a gap in privacy knowledge. In general, it seems, young people know very little about privacy issues:

  • 42 percent of young Americans answered all five online privacy questions in the study’s survey  incorrectly;
  • 88 percent answered only two or fewer correctly;
  • and 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.

While many sites offer tips for maintaining one’s general online privacy, substantial guides for navigating social media privacy concerns are limited, largely due to the ever-changing privacy policies of our favorite social media giants.

As the future of privacy online is necessarily unclear, whether the ‘tell-all generation’ remains‘jacked in’ or ‘checks out’ is now a more relevant question than ever.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to read your thoughts, comments and concerns on social media privacy in the comments section below. I’ll leave you with this relevant cartoon by The Joy of Tech by Nitrozac and Snaggy.

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