Young Internet Users Ignorant of Privacy Laws, Study Finds

Photo: According to researchers, young Internet users' online personal information sharing habits are linked to their ignorance of privacy policies.
According to researchers, young Internet users' online personal information sharing habits are linked to their ignorance of privacy policies.

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Contrary to what Facebook photos of bongs and alcohol might suggest, young adults and their older counterparts have similar concerns about maintaining their privacy online, according to a study by researchers from UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania.

In a study published April 14 in the online Social Science Research Network, researchers indicate that 18 to 24-years-olds share similar desires to restrict sharing personal information on the Internet to those of older age groups. But young adults are more prone to publicize information online because of their ignorance of privacy laws, according to the study.

"Media reports teem with stories of young people posting salacious photos online, writing about alcohol-fueled misdeeds on social networking sites, and publicizing other ill-considered escapades that may haunt them in the future," the study states. "These anecdotes are interpreted as representing a generation-wide shift in attitude toward information privacy. Many commentators therefore claim that young people 'are less concerned with maintaining privacy than older people are'."

But in a survey of 1,000 American adults who regularly surf online, researchers found that 42 percent of young adults answered all five questions about privacy laws incorrectly and 88 percent answered only two or fewer correctly, according to Chris Hoofnagle, a co-author of the study and director of information privacy programs at UC Berkeley's Center for Law and Technology.

Jennifer King, a co-author of the study and a graduate student in the UC Berkeley School of Information, said young adults incorrectly believe that privacy laws will completely protect personal information displayed online, causing them to unknowingly offer personal information and photos to all Internet users.

She added that the presence of a privacy policy on websites such as Facebook and Google are misleading, since the policies do not guarantee any protection of privacy rights.

Representatives from Facebook could not be reached for comment as of press time.

King added that young adults rarely understand that, in the case of Facebook, selecting the option to let "everyone" see one's profile does not mean permission has been granted to everyone on Facebook, but rather everyone who uses the Internet.

She said in addition to their ignorance of privacy laws, young people display personal information, including home addresses and phone numbers, due to peer pressure and a lack of life experience.

Hoofnagle said large social networking websites take advantage of young adults' ignorance of privacy laws.

"I argue that the tail is wagging the dog: the companies that have the most to gain from describing young people as careless about privacy are encouraging and facilitating that carelessness," He said in the e-mail. "Fundamentally, Google and Facebook are Machiavellian; they are using well-known principles from behavioral economics to encourage revelation of personal data, all the while instituting policies that make it appear as though they are not complicit in its revelation."


Contact Claire Perlman at [email protected]

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