Do Young People Care About Privacy?

One of the most frequent questions I get asked when talking about my book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet is what to do about the troublesome younger generation which “doesn’t seem to care about privacy.”  “Those foolish kids,” some people say, “they have no concept of privacy.  They just bare their whole lives on the Internet.  Privacy is a generational thing, and the new generations just don’t give a damn.”

Do young people care about privacy?

The answer is yes.

I’ve often responded to the question by arguing the following:

1. Young people understand privacy in a nuanced way.  They don’t see it as involving total secrecy of their information.  Instead, they view privacy as the right to control the extent to which their information is disseminated and how it is used.  For example, the fact that a person shares private information on her Facebook page, which is accessible to 100 friends, doesn’t mean that she wants to share it with the world.  Privacy isn’t binary — it isn’t all or nothing.

2. Young people still care about how information is used.  Like previous generations, they don’t like being defrauded  (identity theft) or being inundated by junk mail and telemarketing calls or other forms of torture.

3. Young people’s attitudes might also not represent a generational shift, but a typical youthful not thinking about the consequences of their behavior.  When it comes to online sharing of information, this problem is compounded by the fact adults aren’t fully aware of it.

Now there is some great new evidence about how young people think about privacy. A new study by Chris Hoofnagle, Jennifer King, Su Li, and Joseph Turow sheds new light on the attitudes of those pesky young folks.  It is entitled: How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?

The report indicates that the young’s attitudes toward privacy don’t differ from those of adults as much as we had thought.  In many cases, they barely differ at all.

Here are some of the survey’s results:

“Have you ever refused to give information to a business or a company because you thought it was not really necessary or was too personal?”

88% of people of all ages said “yes.”  82% of young adults (18-24 years old) said yes.

“Generally speaking, anyone who uploads a photo or video of me to the internet where I am clearly recognizable should first get my permission.”

86% of people of all ages agreed with this statement, and 84% of young adults agreed.

“Do you think there should be a law that requires websites and advertising
companies to delete all stored information about an individual, or do you feel such a law is not necessary?”

92% of people of all ages said that there should be such a law, as did 88% of young adults.

“Compared to five years ago, would you say you are more concerned about privacy issues on the internet, less concerned, or that you have the same level of concern?”

55% of people of all ages said they were more concerned (only 6% said less concerned) and 54% of young adults said they were more concerned (with only 9% saying they were less concerned).

“If a company purchases or uses someone’s personal information illegally, about how much—if anything—do you think that company should be fined?”

The vast majority of people of all ages (69%) said the fine should be greater than $2500.  They were given choices of $100, $500, $1000, $2500, and more than $2500.

The study concludes by stating:

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.

There are many more fascinating findings in the report.  Be sure to check it out.

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4 Responses

  1. ninja says:

    yes i agree. young people are just subtle about information in a different way than older people. sharing information is about how you share it, not what you’re sharing. young people can be pretty cagey. You can be naive at any age. So anyone can find herself stalked as easily as someone else can find himself out money if they share the wrong information.

  2. dave hoffman says:

    Wouldn’t evidence of people’s actual behavior be a better piece of evidence than these survey results? If their behavior (w/r/t, say, Facebook information) contrasts with these findings, which are we to believe?

  3. Daniel Solove says:


    Behavioral data isn’t necessarily better, as there are many things that can skew behavior. People often have mistaken assumptions about how websites protect their privacy (they think they have a lot more privacy protection than they do). And what does sharing data on Facebook mean? It might mean that a person doesn’t expect privacy. It might mean that the person expects it to be shared with her friends only and views it as a privacy violation to have it shared more widely. It might mean that the person expects it to be shared with her friends and not used by Facebook or others for other purposes.

    In other contexts, people aren’t aware of the extent to which they are sharing information. Or they are aware but feel they don’t have much of a choice in how their data is used.

    So interpreting the behavior and what it indicates about attitudes can be quite difficult. Of course, surveys about attitudes are also prone to error, for people can readily say things but not do them.

    I’m not saying looking at surveys is better than looking at behavior — both are prone to error.