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Age & Aspirations for Privacy

Chris Hoofnagle, professor of law in residence | April 15, 2010

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.” 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.

A UC-Berkeley Law/U. Penn Annenberg team recently commissioned a telephonic (wireline and wireless) survey of internet using Americans (N=1000) on privacy. The findings are presented in How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?

The major findings include–

  • Large percentages of young adults (aged 18-24) 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.

Why does it seem then that young adults behave with such license, particularly on social network sites?

A gap in privacy knowledge provides one explanation. 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.

Cross-posted at Technology | Academics | Policy