Surprisingly, Younger Users Care More About Privacy

By Josh Catone
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One of my predictions for last year was that privacy would be a growing concern among mainstream users. I didn’t repeat that prediction this year, but perhaps I should have. The reason? Apparently, younger web users seem to care more about privacy controls. Or at least, they use them more.

According to Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly, more teenagers than adults use privacy controls on the social network, at a rate of 60% to about 25-30%. That’s surprising given the conventional wisdom that younger Internet users tend not to care about the privacy of their data.

A recent study from Computer Associates confirms that many teens are at least somewhat concerned with online privacy. That study showed that 79% of teens aged 13-17 who are members of a social networking site like MySpace or Facebook protect their profiles from the general Internet in some way (i.e., only allow friends or friends of friends to view their information).

Profiles on Facebook, of course, are automatically protected from viewing by the Internet at large, but protecting them from the rest of your network requires additional steps. That teens are more likely to utilize Facebook’s granular privacy controls points to one of two things that lead to the same conclusion:

  1. Teens care more about online privacy than adults, or,
  2. Teens are simply more aware of social networking privacy controls than adults.

If I had to put money on one potential reason for why younger Facebook users are more apt to utilize privacy controls than older users, I’d guess the latter is more likely. Facebook’s privacy controls are not very well publicized and hidden inside multiple menus. Younger users, who might tend to be more web savvy, could just be finding it easier to locate privacy controls. The previously mentioned Computer Associates survey also found that young people are very likely to post pictures of themselves online, which could be another reason why they are more likely to seek out and use granular privacy controls — they have more to keep hidden.

The conclusion that can be drawn from this, regardless of the reasons, is that privacy and privacy controls will be a growing issue in the future. Younger web users will begin to expect that web sites include increasingly more powerful privacy controls that allow them to more completely regulate how the information they post online is shared with the rest of the world.

Specifically for Facebook, that statistic might also be encouraging for any plans to make a run at the business networking crowd. Because Facebook is used by teenagers and young adults to share messages and pictures with friends — i.e., often times things you’d not want shared with your professional network — the site would need rock solid, easy to implement, and very granular privacy controls before it could be used in earnest for any type of business networking. That so many younger users (future members of the working class) are already using such controls is good news for Facebook.

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  • I would question if this has as much to do with online behaviour as much as teens just being more cagey and cliquey in general.

  • Dave

    It’s not so much that young people care more about privacy — it’s just that they’re tech-savvy enough to find those controls and apply them.

    As a fortysomething who does use privacy controls, I know there are lots of my friends who would like to use them — if they had any idea those controls even existed, or how they worked. Whereas these things are instinctive for people in their teens and twenties, because they’ve grown up on the web.

  • @edeverett in some ways I agree. I wonder how much of this is because in general, the younger generation have a deeper understanding of both the privacy issues surrounding social networking and the functionality the exists to assist with their protection. There is also a group of individuals not represented (specially in the case of facebook), groups that stay largely off-line due to concerns over privacy.

  • This doesn’t really correlate correctly.

    Many adults likely do keep their profiles more open, but that’s because adults more likely subscribe to the Robert Scoble philosophy of using Facebook as a business card rather than a more personal level.

    The younger generation on the other hand isn’t using Facebook for business relationships and therefore can be more particular about who can look.

  • Mallory


    I agree, only I think the younger generation is less concerned about who can look and more concerned about who they really don’t want looking.

    Teens and young adults are realizing the implications of posting very private pictures and messages for everyone (employers, family members, etc. ) to see.

    The more adults, or professionals, that are on social networking sites the more the young’ns will be concerned about protecting their privacy (i.e. saving face)

  • JPT

    @raccettura: I agree. I am a 22 year old and use the privacy rarely, just to cover my address, phone, and DOB…but I do not keep any personal blogs or what not. Other friends of mine (who do not work), actually have their profile completely locked down to anyone but friends and have many party pictures and many personal blogs

  • I would agree with this to the point that teens are more concerned about their parents reading their online conversations and they are tech-savy enough to secure their sites from parents who are not tech-savy enough to configure home networks with proper administrative rights.

  • Paul Huntsberger

    Have you ever seen “Amazon Women from the moon?” – there is this silly blind date skit, where the woman asks for two forms of ID, calls this hotline, and then proceeds to tell the man everything about himself, his relationships, character, lines he gives women – EVERYTHING.

    If that isn’t a good rationale for keeping your life private, it is so you can get a date! Ever Google yourself? I’m glad people can’t look at everything about me – people get the wrong impression very easily.

    All of these blogs, pictures online, bulletins – they’re just all ways of trying to make ourselves look cool, when mostly we’re all just normal crazy people, as weird and awkward as anyone else.

    You can’t know anyone till you meet them IRL. I think that’s what kids realize – they know to keep their dogs in their own yard, and that adults are mostly watching.

  • anantj

    It is not simply that the younger generation are more sensitive to keeping their data private out of a concern for real privacy. It is more likely that they indulge in more activities that they would rather not make known widely (to parents, schools, employers etc)

    They are more likely to post pics of them dressed in weird fashions, with alcoholic drinks in hands or other activities that would be better kept off the internet itself..