How teens manage privacy online

I’ve written previously about issues of privacy online and vulnerability. There is an interesting new Pew Internet report on how teens manage their privacy and identity online.

The Pew report (based on a nationally-representative phone survey conducted for Pew by Princeton Survey Research Associates of 935 teens 12-17 and a parent or guardian of each) concluded that: “Most teenagers are taking steps to protect themselves online from the most obvious areas of risk. The new survey shows that many youth actively manage their personal information as they perform a balancing act between keeping some important pieces of information confined to their network of trusted friends and, at the same time, participating in a new, exciting process of creating content for their profiles and making new friends. Most teens believe some information seems acceptable – even desirable – to share, while other information needs to be protected.”

“Still, the survey also suggests that today’s teens face potential risks associated with online life. Some 32% of online teenagers (and 43% of social-networking teens) have been contacted online by complete strangers and 17% of online teens (31% of social networking teens) have “friends” on their social network profile who they have never personally met.”

Here is a general statistical snapshot of how teens use social network sites and the way they handle their privacy on them:

  • 55% of online teens have profiles online, but of them, 60% limit who can see their profiles in some way.
  • Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face: “Among those whose profiles can be accessed by anyone online, 46% say they give at least a little and sometimes a good deal of false information on their profiles. Teens post fake information to protect themselves, but also to be playful or silly.”  That can successfully protect teens’ privacy, but also collectively helps contribute to lower levels of trust online that also undermine the effectiveness of the Internet as a medium for friendships.  As the cartoon says, no one knows you’re a dog on the Internet.
  • Reaffirming that the Internet is most useful to maintain existing friendships, not make new ones, “[m]ost teens are using the networks to stay in touch with people they already know, either friends that they see a lot (91% of social networking teens have done this) or friends that they rarely see in person (82%).” Although surprisingly, “49% of social network users say they use the networks to make new friends.”
  • Contact with strangers: “32% of online teens have been contacted by strangers online – this could be any kind of online contact, not necessarily contact through social network sites…..21% of teens who have been contacted by strangers have engaged an online stranger to find out more information about that person (that translates to 7% of all online teens).” And “23% of teens who have been contacted by a stranger online say they felt scared or uncomfortable because of the online encounter (that translates to 7% of all online teens).”

Read full Pew report.

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