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Despite Beliefs, Young Adults Concerned About Privacy

April 16, 2010

Researchers have found that young adults generally care as much about online privacy as older Americans do.

The researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania were among the first to look at young people’s attitudes towards online privacy as government officials and corporate executives alike are increasingly grappling with the issue.

“It is going to counter a lot of assumptions that have been made about young adults and their attitudes toward privacy,” Mary Madden, senior researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, told the Associated Press (AP). She was not part of the study but reviewed the report for AP ahead of Thursday’s release.

Eighty-eight percent of the people that took part of the study said they refused to give out information to a business because they thought it to be too personal or unnecessary.

The study found that 86 percent believe that anyone who posts a photo or video of them on the Internet should seek their permission first.  Eighty-four percent of the young adults between ages 18 to 24 agreed with that, while 90 percent of those between ages 45 to 54 also agreed.

The survey did find areas with generational differences in attitude.  Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said a company should be fined over $2,500 for privacy violations.  Only 54 percent of the young adults group thought the fine should be that steep.

Still, the majority of young people generally agreed with the higher age group in wanting more privacy.

“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.

The study found that young people know surprisingly little about their rights to online privacy.  They were considered to be more confident than older adults that the government would protect them, even though U.S. privacy laws offer few safeguards.

According to the study, the lack of knowledge about the law may be one reason young people can seem careless about privacy.  The study, which was based on a 2009 telephone survey of 1,000 Americans 18 and older, has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

The report said that there is also some evidence that adolescents and young adults’ brains are hard-wired toward risky behavior.

The team said that lawmakers and educators should not assume that young adults do not care about privacy and therefore do not need protections.

Rather, they say, “policy discussions should acknowledge that the current business environment … 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.”

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