Young care about privacy but have deluded sense of legal protection, says research

Out-Law News | 21 Apr 2010 | 5:18 pm | 2 min. read

Young people care about privacy just as much as older people but behave more recklessly online because they think the law gives them more protection than it actually does, a study has shown.

Commentators often suggest that the young users of social networking and online publishing sites are far less concerned with their personal privacy than older people or even older users of the same technology. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said earlier this year that privacy was no longer a "social norm".

But researchers at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study of attitudes to privacy and found that 18 to 24 year olds are just as protective as older people of their personal information.

"We found that expressed attitudes towards privacy by American young adults (aged 18-24) are not nearly as different from those of older adults as many suggest," said their research. "With important exceptions, large percentages of young adults are in harmony with older Americans when it comes to sensitivity about online privacy and policy suggestions."

"For example, a large majority of young adults: has refused to give information to a business in cases where they felt it was too personal or not necessary; believes anyone who uploads a photo of them to the internet should get their permission first, even if taken in public; believes there should be a law that gives people the right to know all the information websites know about them; and believes there should be a law that requires websites to delete all stored information about an individual," their report said.

The research tried to find reasons why young people behaved so differently to older people online, and found that they were largely ignorant about their privacy rights.

"Higher proportions of 18-24 year olds believe incorrectly that the law protects their privacy online and offline more than it actually does," the report said. "This lack of knowledge in a tempting environment, rather than a cavalier lack of concern regarding privacy, may be an important reason large numbers of them engage with the digital world in a seemingly unconcerned manner."

The authors of the report - Chris Hoofnagle, Jennifer King, Su Li and Joseph Turow – said that it was investigating to what degree a common assumption about young people and privacy was true.

"Popular writings and comments suggest that America’s youngest adults do not care about information privacy, particularly online," they wrote. "As evidence, many point to younger internet users’ adoption and prolific use of blogs, social network sites, posting of photos, and general documenting and (over)sharing of their life’s details online, from the mundane to the intimate, for all the world to consume."

It found that on most measures, the attitudes of young people matched those of older people when it came to privacy. Their behaviour is similar when it comes to the reading of privacy policies; the erasing of cookies; and the changing of their minds about a product because of privacy concerns, it found

Where there was a mis-match was in knowledge of privacy laws, the study revealed. Young people assume they are far better protected by the law than is actually the case.

"The savvy that many attribute to younger individuals about the online environment doesn’t appear to translate to privacy knowledge. The entire population of adult Americans exhibits a high level of online-privacy illiteracy … but the youngest adults perform the worst on these measures," the report said.

The researchers said that the belief that they were more protected than they were could be behind young people's willingness to share more information online that their older counterparts.

"Young adults certainly are different from older adults when it comes to knowledge of privacy law," the report said. "They are more likely to believe that the law protects them both online and off. This lack of knowledge in a tempting environment, rather than a cavalier lack of concern regarding privacy, may be an important reason large numbers of them engage with the digital world in a seemingly unconcerned manner."