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New Study Finds Young Adults Concerned About Online Privacy

By Andrew Cohen

A new study conducted by four researchers—three of them from Berkeley Law—finds that contrary to mass media reports and anecdotal evidence, young American adults generally care as much about privacy as older Americans.

Despite the explosion of social networking sites and the amount of revealing content young adults post online, the study shows such technology use does not necessarily reflect an underlying indifference toward privacy. The findings, available here, are based on a 2009 telephone survey of 1,000 Americans age 18 and older.

The report was authored by Chris Hoofnagle, director of information privacy programs at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology (BCLT) and senior fellow at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic; BCLT fellow Jennifer King; Berkeley Empirical Legal Studies statistician Su Li; and Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. It is among the first quantitative studies to examine young people’s attitudes toward privacy—at a time when government policymakers and business leaders are grappling with the issue.

“We found that the picture is more nuanced than how it’s being portrayed in the popular media,” says Hoofnagle. “Large percentages of young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 are in harmony with older Americans regarding concerns about online privacy, norms, and policy suggestions.”

The study advises lawmakers and educators against assuming that young adults don’t care about privacy and therefore don’t require legal protections. According to Hoofnagle, a lack of privacy knowledge provides one explanation for the apparent gulf between young adults’ attitudes toward privacy and their online behavior. Of the five online privacy questions presented in the survey, 88 percent of respondents answered only two or fewer correctly.

“Young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy,” Hoofnagle says, “even while they participate in an online reality that’s optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.”

4/22/2010