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Report: Online privacy important to young people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2010 - It’s easy to assume that because young people are becoming accustomed to seeing (or posting) racy photos and behind-the-scenes commentary on social networking sites that they care less than prior generations about maintaining online privacy.

But a report from researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania out today shows otherwise. “We found that expressed attitudes toward privacy by American young adults (aged 18-24) are not nearly as different from those of older adults as many suggest,” says the report, which is one of the first quantitative studies looking at young adults’ attitudes about this topic.

The survey, based on a 2009 telephone survey of 1,000 Americans 18 and older, found that the vast majority of young adults have refused to give information to businesses in cases where they felt it was too personal or not necessary. Specifically, 88 percent of people 18-24 and 82 percent of people 25-34 have done this, which is just a slightly lower percentage than respondents who are in their 50s or above.

The majority of people under 35 said there should be a law that gives people the right to know everything that a website knows about them. They were about as likely to say this as someone in an older generation.

Ninety-two percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 88 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds said there should be a law that requires websites and advertising companies to delete all stored information about an individual. That’s roughly the same percentage of people in their 40s, 50s and 60s who said the same thing.

In the case of reading online privacy policies, there are no statistical differences among age groups, the report found. (About half the adult population said that it reads such policies sometimes or often). About half of young adults have changed their mind about a purchase because of some privacy concern.

There were some demographic differences highlighted, among them that a substantially lower percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds checked their credit reports than did older generations.

The study shows that “the savvy that many attribute to younger individuals about the online environment doesn’t appear to translate to privacy knowledge. The entire population of adult Americans exhibits a high level of online-privacy illiteracy."

The study also found that higher proportions of 18- to 24-year-olds believe incorrectly that the law protects their privacy online and offline more than it actually does. “This lack of knowledge in a tempting environment, rather than a cavalier lack of concern regarding privacy, may be an important reason large numbers of them engage with the digital world in a seemingly unconcerned manner," the report says.