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Study: Teens Employ Many Techniques to Protect Their Online Privacy

Photo courtesy of abcnews

At virtually every conference or gathering in the tech world, there are passionate discussions about the major trends shaping the future of social media, especially the tradeoffs between sharing and privacy.

Betting on future outcomes is a risky business, of course, but one way to glimpse what may be happening is to look at the emerging habits of the next generation of users – teenagers.

That's just what the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center did in a recent study of 802 teens that found while today’s youth are sharing more personal information on social media than ever before, they also “take an array of steps to restrict and prune their profiles.”

In addition, the researchers held focus groups with teens that reveal they have “waning enthusiasm for Facebook, disliking the increasing adult presence, people sharing excessively, and stressful ‘drama,’ but they keep using it because participation is an important part of overall teenage socializing.”

Other findings:

  • 60 percent of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private.
  • Teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to know. 74 percent have deleted people from their network or followers list.
  • The typical teen has 300 Facebook friends.
  • Teen Twitter use is growing significantly to 24 percent of all teens from just 16 percent in 2011. The typical teen user has 79 followers.
  • Teens do not express much concern about third-party access to their data; only 9 percent say they are “very concerned.”

In terms of five key pieces of information about themelves, today’s teenagers share more than they did in an earlier Pew story in 2006:

  • 91 percent post a photo of themselves, up from 79 percent in 2006.
  • 71 percent post the name of their school, up from 49 percent.
  • 71 percent post their city or town, up from 61 percent.
  • 53 percent post their email address, up from 29 percent.
  • 20 percent post their cell phone number, up from 2 percent.

The study also found that the overwhelming majority of teens – 92 percent – post their real name to their profiles.

Teens reported that in general they are having better experiences with other social media sites than Facebook, with both Twitter and Instagram scoring higher ratings. (Instagram is, of course, owned by Facebook.)

In the focus group discussions, teens said they realize their online reputations matter and they take a variety of steps to curate their profiles as a result:

  • 59 percent have deleted or edited something they posted in the past.
  • 53 percent have deleted comments from others.
  • 45 percent have removed their names from photos others have tagged them in.
  • 31 percent have deleted or deactivated an entire profile or account.
  • 19 percent have posted content that they later regretted sharing.
  • 74 percent have deleted people from their socil network.
  • 58 percent have blocked people.

And in perhaps the most revealing finding of all, 58 percent of teens say they share inside jokes or otherwise cloak their content in some manner. And just over one in four (26 percent) admit to posting false information like a fake name, location, or age to protect their privacy.

The results of this survey are of course particularly relevant to parents and teachers and others who worry about teens’ privacy, but in that context, they appear as a group to be far more tech-savvy than many of their elders.

They also as a group clearly comprehend that they are essentially under surveillance while online and therefore adapting to that reality accordingly.

To people in the tech industry, especially social media, the findings suggest that the eternal dance between privacy concerns and sharing will be reshaped by a generation of users who want to continue sharing with others but want to have clear tools to avoid being harmed in the process.