Young People, Privacy, and the Internet
There’s a lot out there on this topic. I’ve already linked to danah boyd’s excellent SXSW talk (and her work in general), my essay on privacy and control, and my talk—”Security, Privacy, and the Generation Gap“—which I’ve given four times in the past two months.
Last week, two new papers were published on the topic.
“Youth, Privacy, and Reputation” is a literature review published by Harvard’s Berkman Center. It’s long, but an excellent summary of what’s out there on the topic:
Conclusions: The prevailing discourse around youth and privacy assumes that young people don’t care about their privacy because they post so much personal information online. The implication is that posting personal information online puts them at risk from marketers, pedophiles, future employers, and so on. Thus, policy and technical solutions are proposed that presume that young would not put personal information online if they understood the consequences. However, our review of the literature suggests that young people care deeply about privacy, particularly with regard to parents and teachers viewing personal information. Young people are heavily monitored at home, at school, and in public by a variety of surveillance technologies. Children and teenagers want private spaces for socialization, exploration, and experimentation, away from adult eyes. Posting personal information online is a way for youth to express themselves, connect with peers, increase popularity, and bond with friends and members of peer groups. Subsequently, young people want to be able to restrict information provided online in a nuanced and granular way.
Much popular writing (and some research) discusses young people, online technologies, and privacy in ways that do not reflect the realities of most children and teenagers’ lives. However, this provides rich opportunities for future research in this area. For instance, there are no studies of the impact of surveillance on young people—at school, at home, or in public. Although we have cited several qualitative and ethnographic studies of young people’s privacy practices and attitudes, more work in this area is needed to fully understand similarities and differences in this age group, particularly within age cohorts, across socioeconomic classes, between genders, and so forth. Finally, given that the frequently-cited comparative surveys of young people and adult privacy practices and attitudes are quite old, new research would be invaluable. We look forward to new directions in research in this area.
“How Different Are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes & Policy?” from the University of California Berkeley, describes the results of a broad survey on privacy attitudes.
Conclusion: In policy circles, it has become almost a cliché to claim that young people do not care about privacy. Certainly there are many troubling anecdotes surrounding young individuals’ use of the internet, and of social networking sites in particular. Nevertheless, we found that in large proportions young adults do care about privacy. The data show that they and older adults are more alike on many privacy topics than they are different. We suggest, then, 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.
Public policy agendas should therefore not start with the proposition that young adults do not care about privacy and thus do not need regulations and other safeguards. Rather, policy discussions should acknowledge that the current business environment along with other factors sometimes encourages young adults to release personal data in order to enjoy social inclusion even while in their most rational moments they may espouse more conservative norms. Education may be useful. Although many young adults are exposed to educational programs about the internet, the focus of these programs is on personal safety from online predators and cyberbullying with little emphasis on information security and privacy. Young adults certainly are different from older adults when it comes to knowledge of privacy law. 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.
But education alone is probably not enough for young adults to reach aspirational levels of privacy. They likely need multiple forms of help from various quarters of society, including perhaps the regulatory arena, to cope with the complex online currents that aim to contradict their best privacy instincts.
They’re both worth reading for anyone interested in this topic.