Who cares more about online privacy: teens or adults?

Jesse Brown on how the latest research challenges perceptions about teens and social media

source: Snapchat

New joint research from the Pew Internet Project and Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet challenges clichés about teens and social media privacy: turns out they do care, and they’re doing something about it.

Let me qualify that. Teens care about protecting their privacy from the prying eyes of parents, teachers, and unwelcome peers. 91 per cent of them couldn’t care less about Big Data privacy loss, the accumulation of information about them by companies like Google and Facebook. Perhaps this is short-sighted, or perhaps it’s entirely rational. After all, Google never called anyone a slut in class, or withheld anyone’s allowance after snooping drunken party pics.

Here are some key findings of the survey of 802 U.S. teens:

  • 91 per cent post a photo of themselves to their social media profiles, up from 79 per cent in 2006.
  • 53 per cent post their email address, up from 29 per cent.
  • 20 per cent post their cell phone number, up from 2 per cent.

Sure, all of that confirms stereotypes of teens as increasingly vain and reckless narcissists, unwittingly endangering themselves online.  But check this additional data out:

  • 60 per cent of teens set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only)
  • 56 per cent of teen Facebook users say it’s “not difficult at all” to manage the privacy controls on their Facebook profile.
  • 33 per cent of Facebook-using teens say it’s “not too difficult.”

Compare those stats to these numbers, the result of a summer 2012 Consumer Reports survey of more than 2,000 adults:

  • 28 percent of adults shared all, or almost all, of their wall posts with an audience wider than just their friends.
  • an estimated 13 million adults had never set, or didn’t know about Facebook’s privacy tools.

The biggest discrepancies between teens and adults when it comes to online privacy probably have nothing to do with Facebook. As parents and grandparents party poop Facebook with their latecomer profiles, teens are abandoning their FB accounts and flocking to amnesia-apps like Snapchat, where pics, texts and videos self-destruct seconds after recipients view them.

Snapchat has quickly exploded in popularity, with over 100 million messages sent a day. I can’t find any data on the average age of a Snapchat user, but it’s widely regarded as a teenager’s app. I can’t say how accurate that characterization is, but I can tell you that nobody among my smart-phone attached  group of age 30+ friends and family seem to have heard of Snapchat.

The app has inspired some sneers. Some call it “the sexting app,” while others  gleefully point out how supposedly deleted Snapchat messages can be retrieved. The truth is, anything that passes through a device can potentially be captured and preserved. The real point of the Snapchat trend, as the Pew/Berkman research suggests, is that teens aren’t the ignorant, chronic exhibitionists they’ve been maligned as. Instead, they are the most privacy-literate users among us, the first demographic to adopt pro-privacy tools en masse, and the market segment creating the most demand for new tools that actually prioritize security and discretion.


Follow Jesse Brown on Twitter @JesseBrown


Who cares more about online privacy: teens or adults?

  1. How dare you challenge my cherished assumptions with data? You… you… journalist!

  2. The actual reports from Pew and other sources are helpful, but this summary article is a bit sloppy. The author is implying that the statistics on privacy settings are drastically different between teens and adults, but that’s not the case. He says 60% of teens set their profiles to private, but 28% of adults set everything to public. There’s no real contradiction here – the 2012 Pew numbers say that 58% of adults have their profiles set as private, and 19% have it set as semi-private.

    It’s not surprising that teens self-report confidence in their privacy-settings skills. If you ask a teen whether they can safely text while driving, they’ll say yes. Recent reports indicate that platforms like Snapchat are not nearly as secure as users think – in fact earlier this month the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint against Snapchat with the FTC for misrepresenting its data security. Other researchers (e.g. Sonia Livingstone) argue that teens and pre-teens are unsure about how to handle privacy and other settings on social media.

    I’d also take issue with the author’s glib suggestion that teen’s apathy toward big data is “rational,” since “Google never called anyone a slut in class, or withheld anyone’s allowance after snooping drunken party pics.” Okay, but big data also has been used to lower credit limits, deny health insurance, and serve up advertisements that pander to social stereotypes. Teens aren’t concerned about these things – nor are many adults – but that’s the kind of issue that journalists should be highlighting rather than glossing over!

  3. Echoing K.H.’s comment, if 60% of teens set their FB walls to ‘friends only,’ and 72% of adults (100%-28%) *don’t* share all, or almost all, of their wall posts with people other than their friends, doesn’t that imply that teens in fact care *less* about their online privacy, at least by this metric?

    That being said, the apparent shift from hosted, public or semi-public social media platforms like FB and twitter to peer-to-peer platforms like snapchat certainly suggests *some* sort of shift in attitudes among teens, though as Jesse suggests that may have more to do with privacy vis-a-vis parents than privacy vis-a-vis Big Data.