All the dirty laundry younger people seem to air on social networks these days might lead older Americans to conclude that today’s tech-savvy generation doesn’t care about privacy.
Such an assumption fits happily with declarations that privacy is dead, as online marketers and social sites such as Facebook try to persuade people to share even more about who they are, what they are thinking, and where they are at any given time.
But it’s not quite true, a new study finds. Despite mounds of anecdotes about college students sharing booze-chugging party photos, posting raunchy messages, and badmouthing potential employers online, young adults generally care as much about privacy as older Americans.
The report, from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Pennsylvania, is among the first quantitative studies looking at young people’s attitudes toward privacy as government officials and corporate executives alike increasingly grapple with such issues.
“It is going to counter a lot of assumptions that have been made about young adults and their attitudes toward privacy,” said Mary Madden, senior researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. She was not part of the study but reviewed the report for the Associated Press ahead of its April 15 release.
Among the findings:
• Eighty-eight percent of people of all ages said they have refused to give out information to a business because they thought it was too personal or unnecessary. Among young adults, 82 percent have refused, compared with 85 percent of those over 65.
• Most people—86 percent—believe that anyone who posts a photo or video of them on the internet should get their permission first, even if that photo was taken in public. Among young adults 18 to 24, 84 percent agreed—not far from the 90 percent among those 45 to 54.
• Forty percent of adults ages 18 to 24 believe executives should face jail time if their company uses someone’s personal information illegally—the same as the response among those 35 to 44 years old.
The survey, based on a 2009 telephone survey of 1,000 Americans 18 and older, did find some areas with generational differences in attitudes. For example, while 69 percent of all respondents said a company should be fined more than $2,500 for privacy violations, only 54 percent of those 18 to 24 years old thought the fine should be that steep.
Even so, the majority of young people generally agreed with their older counterparts in wanting more privacy, not less.
“Yes, there are some young people who are posting racy photographs and personal information. But those anecdotes might not represent what the average young person is doing online,” said Chris Hoofnagle, co-author of the study and director of information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology.
Although they grew up in the digital age, young people know surprisingly little about their rights to online privacy, the study found. They seem more confident than older adults that the government would protect them, even though U.S. privacy laws offer few such safeguards.