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When It Comes To Online Privacy, A Disconnect For The Young

Is there a generational divide on privacy?
Anna Zielinska
Is there a generational divide on privacy?

Are you old enough to remember privacy?

Teens and even young adults have grown up in an environment where sharing information about themselves online is not just encouraged but expected.

Yet there's a disconnect between the attitudes young people express about online privacy and their actual behavior.

A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll released on Monday showed Americans ages 18-29 place a higher priority on privacy than any other age group. Among them, 45 percent say it is more important for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats. That view falls to 35 percent among those ages 30-49 and just 27 percent among those ages 50 and older.

But the poll, taken amid last week's revelations of the government tracking of phone calls and Internet activity, also found that just 12 percent of people ages 18-29 are following the story very closely, compared with a majority who aren't paying attention at all.

No matter what they tell pollsters, young people are used to sharing private information online. Still, it may not be the case that they're so markedly different from those who came of age in the 20th century.

They may have grown up as digital natives, but the behavior for which they're sometimes criticized — sharing too much information online — is more and more the practice among older generations, as well.

"We shouldn't assume that young adults are just idiotic about privacy," says Joseph Turow, a communication professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Products Of The Times

It's not hard to find people in their 70s and 80s who don't want to do everything online. Some don't trust online banking, for example, out of fear that carrying out financial transactions on the Web could make them more vulnerable to identity theft (or just plain theft).

Teens and college students, meanwhile, seem to think nothing of posting pictures of themselves clad scantily, if at all, or engaging in inappropriate behavior.

But those types of online behaviors, while receiving plenty of media attention, may be overblown as a picture of a generation.

Young people have always done stupid things. It's just that now, Turow points out, they can do them online, for all the world to see.

Old people, he says, may know better than to display pictures of their bodies on the Internet. But he notes there haven't been studies of those over, say, 55, to examine what sort of odd things they post.

And there's no telling whether today's older generations would have acted just as brazenly as kids do today, if Twitter and Snapchat had been around in their youth.

Conversely, young people, "as they mature, both financially and physically, may be more like their parents over time," Turow says.

Trust, Don't Verify

Turow has conducted surveys since the 1990s that have looked at people's attitudes about online privacy, including how the young differ from those who are more mature.

When it comes to questions such as whether they've ever put off an online purchase owing to privacy or security concerns, or whether their friends should ask permission before posting a recognizable picture of them on the Internet, the attitudes of young people are pretty much in line with older folk.

"They may do things they regret, but in the context of asking them about policy, they're not all that different from older people," Turow says.

That's in part because older people have, for the most part, gotten more with the times when it comes to living online.

Whether you're young or old, if you're reading this online article it's likely that you've pushed away concerns about privacy at one time or another, because you wanted or needed the convenience of conducting transactions that have largely migrated onto the Internet.

"Privacy is not an on/off switch — it's more like a spectrum," says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "We make various choices in various situations, depending on perceived risks and benefits."

And much of the growth of the Web, and certainly social media, has coincided with post-Sept. 11 security concerns.

What Privacy Policy?

Madden was lead author of a recent report about teens and social media. It found that only 9 percent of teens were "very" concerned about third parties, such as advertisers, gaining access to their online information, compared with nearly half their parents.

Because children and adolescents often exercise poor judgment, about half of parents try to place some kind of controls on their children's Internet use, according to the Pew study. In 1998, Congress passed a law requiring website operators that collect data from children under the age of 13 to comply with privacy policies.

But the whole idea of privacy policies is a misnomer, at least in terms of people's expectations. In survey after survey, Turow says, huge majorities of Americans mistakenly believe that a website having a privacy policy means they're entitled to privacy — that their information won't be shared or sold. That's just not the case in most instances, even though some sort of protections may be in place.

"The great majority of Americans, when they see the words 'privacy policy,' are deluded, they're misled," he says.

Not only are generic terms failing to keep up with the times, but it's in the interest of social media companies and retailers alike to sound reassuring so that people will share as much information about themselves as possible.

Don't worry, so many sites seem to say. We'll protect you.

Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University, suggests it may be that current news coverage about the government's use of data may foster greater awareness of the extent of online data collection in general — by drug companies, political campaigns and seemingly everyone else.

"Social networks have given young people an illusion they can control their privacy," Montgomery says. "Most young people don't understand the extent of the data collection that happens on all these sites."

Most people don't take the time to do all they can to protect their information online. The current stories about the National Security Agency could bring about more concern about privacy — that is, if enough people are paying attention.

But it might foster a general sense that it's already too late to worry much about it.

Even if you're careful about what you share online, after all, your friends might not practice the same discretion.

"You can be a non-Internet user and you're still all over the Web," says Madden, the Pew researcher. "It's not quite possible to be completely offline anymore."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.
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