Pew Research confirms that youth care about their reputation

In today’s discussions about privacy, “youth don’t care about privacy” is an irritating but popular myth. Embedded in this rhetoric is the belief that youth are reckless risk-takers who don’t care about the consequences of their actions. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

In my own work, I’ve found that teenagers care deeply about privacy in that they care about knowing how information flows and wanting influence over it. They care deeply about their reputation and leverage the tools available to help shape who they are. Of course, reputation and privacy always come back to audience. And audience is where we continuously misunderstand teenagers. They want to make sure that people they respect or admire think highly of them. But this doesn’t always mean that they care about how YOU think about them. So a teenager may be willing to sully their reputation as their parents see it if it gives them street cred that makes them cool amongst their peers. This is why reputation is so messy. There’s no universal reputation, no universal self-presentation. It’s always about audience.

The teenagers that I first started interviewing in 2004 are now young adults. Many are in college or in the army and their views on their reputation have matured. How they think about privacy and information flow has also matured. They’re thinking about a broader world. At the same time, they’re doing so having developed an understanding of these challenges through their engagement with social media. Are their ideas about these technologies perfect? Of course not. But they’re a whole lot more nuanced than those of most adults that I talk with.

Earlier today, Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project released a report entitled “Reputation, Management, and Social Media” which includes a slew of data that might seem counter-intuitive to adults who have really skewed mythical views of youth and young adults. They found that young adults are more actively engaged in managing what they share online than older adults. In fact, 71% of the 18-29s interviewed in August-September of 2009 who use social network sites reported having changed their privacy settings (vs. 55% of those 50-64). Think about that. This was before Time Magazine put privacy on their front page.

Now, let’s be clear… Young adults are actively engaged in managing their reputation but they’re not always successful. The tools are confusing and companies continue to expose them without them understanding what’s happening. But the fact that they go out of their way to try to shape their information is important. It signals very clearly that young adults care deeply about information flow and reputation.

Reputation matters. This is why Pew found that 47% of 18-29s delete comments made by others on their profiles (vs. 29% of 30-49s and 26% of 50-64s). Likewise, 41% of them remove their name from photos (vs. 24% of 30-49s and 18% of 50-64s). While Pew didn’t collect data on those under 18, I’d expect that this age-wise trend would continue into that age bracket. Much of this is because of digital literacy – the younger folks understand the controls better than the older folks AND they understand the implications better. We spend a lot more time telling teenagers and young adults that there are consequences to reputation when information is put up online than we do listening to ourselves. This is also because, as always, youth are learning the hard way. As Pew notes, young adults have made mistakes that they regret. They’ve also seen their friends make mistakes that they regret. All of this leads to greater consciousness about these issues and a deeper level of engagement.

As always, this Pew report is filled to the brim with useful information that gives us a sense of what’s going on. Here are some of my favorite bullet points:

  • Young adults are still more likely than older users to say they limit the amount of information available about them online.
  • Those who know more, worry more. And those who express concern are twice as likely to say they take steps to limit the amount of information available about them online.
  • The most visible and engaged internet users are also most active in limiting the information connected to their names online.
  • The more you see footprints left by others, the more likely you are to limit your own.
  • Those who take steps to limit the information about them online are less likely to post comments online using their real name.
  • More than half of social networking users (56%) have “unfriended” others in their network.
  • Just because we’re friends doesn’t mean I’m listening: 41% of social networking users say they filter updates posted by some of their friends.
  • Young adult users of social networking sites report the lowest levels of trust in them.

This Pew report does more than inform us about privacy and reputation issues. Its data sends an important message: We need more literacy about these issues. Ironically, I think that the best thing that’s going to come about because of Facebook’s ongoing screw-ups is an increased awareness of privacy issues. When youth see that they can do one of two things with their interests: delete them or make them publicly visible to everyone, they’re going to think twice. Sure, many will still make a lot of that content publicly accessible. And others will be very angry at Facebook for not giving them a meaningful choice. But this is going to force people to think about these issues. And the more people think about it, the more they actively try to control what’s going on. (Of course, we need Facebook to stop taking controls away from people, but that’s a different story.)

Pew’s report also counters a lot of myths that I’ve been hearing. For example, the desire for anonymity isn’t dead. Facebook tends to proudly announce that its users are completely honest about their names. Guess what? Many youth don’t trust Facebook. And they’re not providing them with real names either. Just take a look at this screen shot that I grabbed from a publicly accessible Facebook profile. This image isn’t doctored and while some of the names reflect real ones, there’s a lot of obscuring going on.

If you care about youth, if you care about issues of privacy and reputation, PLEASE read the Pew report. It is an example of brilliant research and tremendous reporting.

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4 thoughts on “Pew Research confirms that youth care about their reputation

  1. jon

    Talk about a timely report … great summary, danah.

    Shameless plug: we’ll be talking about these issues at the ACM Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference in San Jose next month. More info here.

  2. Dan Miller

    I think there’s a larger factor as to why young people would be more likely to delete comments or photo tags than their elders–because there is simply more incriminating stuff that happens to them. How many 50-year-olds drink to excess or make out with strangers in public or have serious relationship drama? Vs. how many 20-year-olds?

  3. Bertil Hatt

    Glad to read you, once again—you are on a roll. (And that makes the reply I owe you all the more burning)

    One detail on the stats about exerting control however —erasing something on your wall, unfriending, muting. These could also mean that *friends* of younger users make actual mistakes on their page. I must check the report itself, but I have to say, I never had to correct my colleagues, friends or older member of my family; my younger cousins and their friends however… that’s a different story: they still try to figure out what makes sense. Because users tend to know, befriend & Friend users the same age, that might explain part the stats, rather than informed, actual or sophisticated concern.

    The rest of the data tends to say that those accidents seem to allow younger people to understand the mechanism better, encouraging realistic case study & story telling as a teaching method, rather than technical education about raw specs — but it’s a shame such your review of a great report gets confused on stats.

    PS: Great design update. Unless it’s been here long, and I should stop using Readability on properly designed sites.

  4. Rob

    Great post.

    I cited your post and the original post that cited you on GigaOM in my article here I am of the full opinion that these social networks can never really do enough to protect privacy because they weren’t built for families and especially not for children. They were built for college students where the whole point was to share. In the article I point out some other things about why current solutions won’t work.

    I would love to talk to you more about this Danah, please feel free to email me to continue the conversation!

    *by the way, this is the third time trying to submit this post, I can’t get the question right even though I think I’m answering it correctly :/*

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