Contrary to popular mythology, a survey from the Pew Research Center and Harvard’s Berkman Center found that “American teenagers ages 12 to 17 care about their privacy.”
The study, Where Teens Seek Online Privacy Advice, involved a representative sample of 802 teens and 802 parents of teens as well as focus groups involving 156 teens.
Even though young people do tend to share a lot online, “they also take steps to manage what can be seen and who can access it,” according to the report. In other words, it’s about control.
The study also found that 70% of teens have reached out for advice on how to manage their online privacy and, perhaps to the surprise of some adults, parents and peers are about equal when it comes to who they’re likely to reach out to for help.
- 42% have asked a friend or peer for advice on managing their privacy online
- 41% have asked a parent
- 37% have asked a sibling or cousin
- 13% have gone to a website for advice
- 9% have asked a teacher
- 3% have gone to some other person or resource
Yet, in focus groups, the researchers found that many teens “draw on their own wits, observations and knowledge to manage their privacy online and on social media.” They figure out the settings on their own by looking through menus and settings on social networking services and apps.
Private Facebook profiles
Most teens not only know how to use Facebook privacy settings, but configure their profiles as either fully or partially private. Of those who have sought out advice on privacy, 61% post to friends only while 24% are “partially private.” And even those who don’t get privacy advice from others are mostly careful about what they share with the world with 56% sharing to friends only and 24% partially private.
Differences by age and gender
As one might hope and expect, younger teens (12-13) are more likely to seek privacy advice than older teens but the difference isn’t dramatic with 77% of young teens having sought advice vs. 67% of older teens. And, again as you might expect, younger teens are more likely to seek advice from parents (58% vs. 33%) compared to older teens. Girls (77%) are slightly more likely to ask for advice than boys (66%).
The study’s focus groups f0und that teens indicate a “high level of self-reliance” when it comes to managing their privacy settings. One 13 year old boy said “The [privacy settings] are straightforward. And I think they [Facebook] change them a lot. And they sort of reset or something. So you just have to constantly, you know, update them.” As the co-author of A Parents Guide to Facebook, which we’ve revised several times over the last few years, I can testify that he is absolutely correct (and yes, our guide is a bit out of date)
And, whether it’s true or not, some teens seem to feel that parents and teachers are a bit clueless when it comes to technology and the Internet. “Parents, they don’t know how computers work, said one 16 year-old. “ My dad does, but he doesn’t know how the Internet works…. And teachers, not really. I remember in my old school… We’d had a couple classes about Internet safety, but that was about it. I haven’t asked teachers specific questions about it.”
What this all means
To me, the survey is partially reassuring because it shows that teens do perceive themselves to be in control when it comes to their own privacy. They feel that they understand how to set privacy controls and they have a sense that they know how to manage who gets access to their information.
Having said that, I think it’s important to point out that there are aspects to privacy that teens may not be fully aware of that weren’t addressed in this survey including third party tracking cookies and the role of advertising networks as well as how apps and social networks are collecting data from users including (in some cases) location data as well as friends and contacts.
Of course that’s probably true of adults as well.
Disclosure: ConnectSafely.org receives financial support from Facebook and other Internet companies.