Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion?

May 11, 2010 / Culture, Life, Media, Tech / 52 Comments /
Our personal lives are constantly broadcasted across our online social networks. Are young people more apt to act with indiscretion. Conventional wisdom says 'yes'; studies say 'no'.

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.



  1. My most recent blog post -- "Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion?" -- http://tinyurl.com/youngadultfbprivacy

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  3. DavePet99

    May 12, 2010
    / Reply

    Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion? http://bit.ly/cSLT24 RT @StevenDuque #hereshoping #upyourszuckerberg

  4. ScottLudwig

    May 12, 2010
    / Reply

    Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion? http://bit.ly/9zVpFs

  5. meanderingthemaze

    May 13, 2010
    / Reply

    If you want an open source alternative to Facebook, where you are in control of your information, check out this project that is being developed. You can even host it yourself!!!

  6. quattrofan

    May 14, 2010
    / Reply

    Contrary to perceived wisdom 18-29 yr olds being more discrete online http://bit.ly/9zVpFs, its the oldies will learn the hard way

  7. forex robot

    May 16, 2010
    / Reply

    What a great resource!

  8. Jane Stenson

    May 17, 2010
    / Reply

    I'm not sure where privacy will be in the future, whether the http://www.dirtyphonebook.com completely open vision of the future takes root where anybody can write whatever they want about anybody, whether the Facebook sort of middle-ground approach wins, or whether the locked up style profiles of Diaspora or some other very private social network takes off.

    But in my opinion, young people don't care as much about these privacy issues because they've grown up sharing their lives with everybody else. I think the world will trend towards openness, it's just a question of how open it'll get. I think Facebook may face a media backlash for a while but I guarantee that nobody is going to care about what Facebook did 6 months from now because they'll be used to it and Facebook will be unleashing something else that everybody will moan and groan about. Just the nature of reality.

    • Steven

      May 18, 2010
      / Reply


      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your thoughtful response.

      Whether open networks (e.g., MySpace), middle-ground (e.g., Facebook) or closed networks (e.g., SmallWorld) are the ultimate winners of the social network field competitive field is an extremely interesting question. My personal thoughts are that there's room enough for all of them. I think the critical mass of the Facebook population is too great for it to lose enough steam to make it irrelevant. Whether niche networks can survive, by virtue of their engagement with their given communities, is a different question. Needless to say, such networks must have a strategy for fostering conversation -- a topic which I recently posted about on my company's blog.

      I agree with you, Jane, that there will be a general trend toward openness. I think it will become a given, if it isn't already, that people will just have to become more cognizant about managing their online reputations more diligently through online social media. I think, though, what will change is the depth of openness that people adopt on the internet. Knowing that they are visible to others, people will more actively manage their online personas, and one 'markets' themselves online will become an ever-important part of participating in online life.

      Thanks again, Jane, and I hope to hear back from you on Living in The Future!

  9. yann leroux

    May 19, 2010
    / Reply

    Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion? http://bit.ly/dAEt9k

  10. Marie Garaud

    May 19, 2010
    / Reply

    RT @yannleroux: Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion? http://bit.ly/dAEt9k

  11. Scott OBrien

    May 19, 2010
    / Reply

    Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion? http://bit.ly/aTdf9Y

  12. pharmacy tech

    May 21, 2010
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    Keep posting stuff like this i really like it

  13. Allan Manangan

    May 21, 2010
    / Reply

    And @StevenDuque shares his thoughts: "Facebook Privacy: The Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion?" http://bit.ly/91fWoH

  14. yann leroux

    May 25, 2010
    / Reply

    Facebook Privacy: the Tell-All Generation Learning Discretion? http://bit.ly/cNcvx6

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    May 27, 2010
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      May 28, 2010
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