Report shows young people care strongly about digital privacy

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

March 19, 2015

In 2010 the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg , famously said that in his opinion privacy is something that is no longer a ‘social norm’ – at least not in the same way that it had been in the pre-internet era – declaring that,

‘People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people…  That social norm is just something that has evolved over time’

Its pretty easy to see why Zuckerberg might feel that way, after all, Facebook is a voluntary service that nobody forces anyone to join, and yet people do choose to sign up, despite its incredibly invasive contract of service, in order to immediately start uploading both photos of their every move, and writing all of their innermost thoughts – both in times of anguish and happiness, during depression or ecstasy – because of holidays, weddings, birthdays, and even in the face of death; important moments in their life hanging up like washing on a clothesline to be scrutinized by everyone and anyone, or maybe, if they actually do have a shred of respect for your own privacy, then only for ‘friends’ or ‘friends of friends’ to see.

Most frightening of all, perhaps, is the way that a generation of people, largely adults, who had never had anything like the internet growing up – took to it like ducks to water – throwing themselves in from the deep end, not only using the internet for the more obvious and ‘mature’ reasons of catching up on the news or for better networking with business contacts, but also as a means to communicate and socialize with both friends and family.

Perhaps it was all those movies and Star Trek episodes? A generation of people had been prepared – groomed by the media – to expect a huge technological leap. They had grown up looking forward to it, and like the flying car today – that always seems to be around the corner but never actually materializes – for a while it seemed that this technological advancement might never happen, and so people waited breathlessly as computers shrunk from the size of a warehouse to something that they could buy for their office or home, and when it arrived they were excited and they relished it, and in many ways succumbed to a form of mass hysteria because of it..

Now, thankfully, a new study from the Market Research Society (MRS) suggests that a backlash is finally happening, and for those of us who do value digital privacy it is hugely encouraging to know that  young people are leading the way.

Growing up in a world with the internet has made them see it through different eyes – whereas my dad got the internet at the age of 37, and I got it at the age of 14, these young people have had it from birth, and having seen their older siblings and parents flaunt their lives on it like there is no tomorrow, they have grown up with a different vantage point.

The internet is not new to them – yes it is still immersive and exciting, because of course today it is hugely pervasive and invasive, inescapable. Nevertheless, to them the internet is a relic from a bygone era, it is from a time that was there before them, it has always been there, and they can’t even imagine or comprehend a world without it, which allows them to look at it through much less romantic eyes, and to notice just how carelessly their older family members often use it.

You see, when Mark Zuckerberg branded the public’s desire for privacy dead, he was wrong – plain and simply wrong – privacy is a survival instinct, it is an evolutionary building block, just like paranoia. It is something that we subconsciously know will keep us safe, something that we know kept our chain of ancestors alive – it is the reason that we have curtains so that people can’t see in our houses at night – and while previous generations of internet users did overlook their own need for survival, those young people who grew up watching this obvious disregard for personal safety, quietly noticed their elders’ mistakes (without the need for Snowden or his documents), and are choosing to behave in quite a different way.

The study MRS has undertaken reveals that young people are doing a number of things to protect themselves online… by giving false information when filling in online forms for example, or by  joining social media websites under pseudonyms, and running their real identity simultaneously to a fake account.

Young people are choosing to ‘un-tag’ themselves from photos, rather than to volunteer more up, in order to stop people from outside of their immediately known circles having access to their images, to their life.  Young people have become aware that they can be anybody they choose to be on the internet, and that those they meet could be anybody too.  This two-way recognition about internet identity makes them wisely wary of strangers, and opens their eyes to the fact that they don’t want to share details of their personal lives without due care or process, with someone who could turn out to be, plain and simply, ‘the enemy’.

According to Colin Strong of the MRS Delphi group, peoples’ opinions on who it is that is most vulnerable and at risk on the internet are actually quite skewed. That of course does not mean that adults do not have a responsibility to talk to children about Facebook’s privacy settings and how they can be used to keep a profile under control,  or to talk to them about the fact that their online behavior reflects on their real life, and that there is in effect no boundary between a digital and real world identity – other than how you choose to protect that identity.

It does, however, mean that credit needs to be given where credit is due, because according to the research, how we perceive young people and their ability to understand the internet and effectively protect themselves from vulnerability while online, can actually be quite damaging From the report,

‘There is a universally held view that teenagers simply don’t care enough about online privacy.’

The research however shows this to be untrue, and continues by saying,

‘Far from being careless about their privacy, teenagers manage it carefully. They just aren’t so obvious about it.’

At the end of the day, young people have no choice but to use the internet, and they are the ones that are going to be taking the baton forward and making decisions about how the internet should be run in the future, and lets face, it young people have some big choices to make,  especially in this post Snowden climate.

Adults then, must not take this news to mean that we need not worry about our young – quite the opposite, we must take it to mean that our young are capable of making good choices, and should be encouraged to do so by being effectively communicated with, fairly educated, and by being nurtured to have confidence and self belief, because these are the people that will have to make some massive choices in the years to come – they are the next generation of students that could easily succumb to corporate money and become the next lot of NSA and GCHQ spies.

These are (at least potentially) the talented coders who will become the next white hat or black hat hackers -the future adults who will have the power to say no to their elders incomprehensible choice both to share too much, and to allow themselves to be spied on. They have the power in their hands to hugely influence for the better the way in which information flows through the internet – in favor of across-the-board encryption and privacy for all.

Either that, or they will grow up paranoid and worried, and instead of confidently striving for better management of these important technologies, will simply find better and better ways to hide from their perceived ‘enemies’.

One way or another however, it is these young people who will drive the world and its technologies forward. The good news is that they appear to have their heads strapped on much better than we are willing to admit, so let’s help them to grow up into the force for change that we need – by being open, listening and engaging with them,  and perhaps, if you are a Facebook addict and can not help showing off your holiday pics, by taking a leaf out of your kids’ book, and tightening up your privacy settings, because you truly never know who is looking in…


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