What's with Generation Y and online privacy?

Depending on whom you ask, members of Generation Y either have online privacy figured out, or they haven't a clue. Michael P. Kassner looks at who's right.

As a parent of a son who belongs to Generation Y, I wanted to understand the vast disconnect between Millennials (members of Generation Y born between 1982 and 2000) and their parents when it comes to online privacy habits. My interest deepened this past November when Facebook proposed major changes to their governing documents:

[W]e found that the voting mechanism, which is triggered by a specific number of comments, actually resulted in a system that incentivized the quantity of comments over their quality. Therefore, we're proposing to end the voting component of the process in favor of a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement.

The decision was entirely up to Facebook members. According to CNET, the voter turnout was sparse — 700,000 out of one billion members, so Facebook rescinded the ability to vote. CNET also mentioned, of the 700,000 who did vote, 88 percent cast their vote against the new changes.

Since November, I have been taking an informal poll of Facebook members I personally know. I asked what they thought about losing the right to vote on proposed changes to Facebook policy. Few knew what I was talking about (every Facebook member supposedly received an email notification like the one above), and those who did know, were Millennials.

This seemed like a hint about the disconnect I mentioned earlier. Intrigued, I dug deeper, finding additional hints in the 2010 Pew Internet report, "How people monitor their identity and search for others online." Rather than use the term online privacy, Pew chose the catchy phrase — reputation management:

Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young. While some internet users are careful to project themselves online in a way that suits specific audiences, other internet users embrace an open approach to sharing information about themselves, and do not take steps to restrict what they share.

The Pew Internet report went on to mention how reputations were managed online:

Search engines and social media sites play a central role in building one's reputation online; and many users are learning and refining their approach as they go—changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates, and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online.

The report interviewed over 2,250 internet users, and to my good fortune sorted the people interviewed into the following age groups: 18-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 and older. The following survey questions specifically caught my attention.

Take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online:

  • 44 percent of internet users between ages 18-29.
  • 33 percent of internet users between ages 30-49.
  • 25 percent of internet users between ages 50-64.
  • 20 percent of internet users 65 and older.

Change privacy settings to limit what they share with others online:

  • 71 percent of social networking users between ages 18-29.
  • 55 percent of social networking users between ages 50-64.

Delete unwanted comments that others have made on their profile:

  • 47 percent social networking users between ages 18-29.
  • 29 percent of social networking users between ages 30-49.
  • 26 percent of social networking users between ages 50-64.

Remove their name from photos that were tagged to identify them:

  • 41 percent of social networking users between ages 18-29.
  • 24 percent of social networking users between ages 30-49.
  • 18 percent of social networking users between ages 50-64.

Mary Madden, senior research specialist at Pew and lead author of the report provided the following overview:

Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities.

So, does that mean we don't have to worry about Millennials? And why do parents along with older adults feel Millennials have what Madden called a laissez-faire attitude?

The disconnect

Discussing this with my son, I got the feeling we weren't talking about the same thing. Another hint I thought, convincing me to take a hard look at what privacy actually means. I soon realized it wasn't going to be easy; the Wikipedia entry for privacy is over 5,000 words long. Did you know in the United States, privacy is not guaranteed by the Constitution?

In the Wikipedia entry, I found the following definition:

The right to privacy is our right to keep a domain around us, which includes all those things that are part of us, such as our body, home, property, thoughts, feelings, secrets, and identity. The right to privacy gives us the ability to choose which parts in this domain can be accessed by others, and to control the extent, manner, and timing of the use of those parts we choose to disclose.
The part I found most interesting: The right to privacy gives us the ability to choose which parts in this domain can be accessed by others. This seems to be the area of contention between Millennials, their parents, and other older adults. I'd like to gauge your opinion in the following poll:

Since the poll's responses are limited, please feel free to explain your thoughts at more length in the comments, especially about these areas:

  • According to studies, Millennials are more aware of how to control their online reputations. Does that offset their allowing more access to information deemed sensitive by older adults?
  • It is almost assured what is released to the Internet is public knowledge forever. Why does this scare parents and older adults, but not Millennials?
  • Do you think parents and older adults are alarmed at the openness of Millennials because they feel Millennials are naïve about future fallout from their openness online?

Final thoughts

It seems I've ended up with more questions than answers. In a sense that may be a good thing, particularly if we all realize the disconnect may well be how privacy (online reputation management) is defined.

And, the disconnects are just beginning, if this AVG media blog is any indication. New AVG Technologies Threat Report reveals pre-teen children developing malicious code. The lede mentions that preteen children are writing malicious code in order to steal game log-in credentials.

var gaJsHost = (("https:" == document.location.protocol) ? "https://ssl." : "http://www.");

document.write(unescape("%3Cscript src='" + gaJsHost + "' type='text/javascript'%3E%3C/script%3E"));

// —>

try {

var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker("UA-9822996-4");


} catch(err) {}

// —>


Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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