Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks

Many teenagers avidly use social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and employ a variety of tools and techniques to manage their online identities.

Online social networks are spaces on the internet where users can create a profile and connect that profile to others to create a personal network. Social network users post content to their profiles and use tools embedded within social networking websites to contact other users. Young adults and teenagers are among the most avid users of such websites.

Much of the media coverage surrounding young people and online social networks has focused on the personal information teens make available on these networks. Are they sharing information that will harm their future college or job prospects? Or worse, are they sharing information that puts them at risk of victimization?

A new survey and a series of focus groups conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project examines how teens understand their privacy through several lenses: by looking at the choices that teens make to share or not to share information online, by examining what they share, by probing for the context in which they share it and by asking teens for their own assessment of their vulnerability. For many online teens, particularly those with profiles, privacy and disclosure choices are made as they create and maintain social networking profiles. Of course, material shared in a profile is just one of many places where information is shared online – but it provides a snapshot into the choices that teens make to share in a relatively public and persistent online environment. Further, we went on to examine the interactions teens have with people unknown to them on social networking sites, exploring the nature of new friendships created on the networks, as well as unwelcome, and some times uncomfortable or scary stranger contacts.

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; 45% of online teens do not have profiles online.
  • Among the teens who have profiles, 66% of them say that their profile is not visible to all internet users. They limit access to their profiles in some way.
  • 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.
  • Most 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%).
  • 49% of social network users say they use the networks to make new friends.
  • 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). 
  • 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). 

Teens post a variety of things on their profiles, but a first name and photo are standard.

Fully 55% of online teens have profiles; here is a rundown of the kinds of information they post:

  • 82% of profile creators have included their first name in their profiles
  • 79% have included photos of themselves.
  • 66% have included photos of their friends.
  • 61% have included the name of their city or town.
  • 49% have included the name of their school.
  • 40% have included their instant message screen name.
  • 40% have streamed audio to their profile.
  • 39% have linked to their blog.
  • 29% have included their email address.
  • 29% have included their last names.
  • 29% have included videos.
  • 2% have included their cell phone numbers.
  • 6% of online teens and 11% of profile-owning teens post their first and last names on publicly-accessible profiles;
  • 3% of online teens and 5% of profile-owning teens disclose their full names, photos of themselves and the town where they live in publicly-viewable profiles.

Boys and girls have different views and different behaviors when it comes to privacy.

Girls and boys differ in how they think about giving out personal information online. Online, girls are more likely than boys to say that they have posted photos both of themselves and of their friends onto their online profile. Boys are more likely to say they have posted the city or town where they live, their last name and their cell phone number when compared with girls.

In our focus groups, girls were, in general, more concerned than boys about the release of any information that can be linked to one’s physical location.

Focus Group Snapshot:

“I use a pseudonym, who is 24. Because I
regard myself as an intellectual, it’s easier
to be taken seriously if people don’t know
they’re talking to a 16 year old. You’d
be surprised what respect 8 years buys you.”

– Boy, Late High School

Boys and younger teens are more likely than girls or older teens to post false information on their online profiles; 64% of profile-owning boys post fake information compared with 50% of girls who do the same. Younger and older teens exhibit another split, with 69% of younger teens posting fake information versus 48% of older teens.

Older teens share more personal information than younger teens.

Teens ages 15-17 with online profiles are more likely than younger teens to post photos of themselves or friends to their profile as well as share their school name online. Older girls are more likely than any other group to share photos of friends, while younger girls are more likely than younger boys to have shared information about their blog on their profile.

To teens, all personal information is not created equal. They say it is very important to understand the context of an information-sharing encounter.

One of the primary questions animating policy discussions about teens’ use of social network sites is framed this way: Are today’s teens less concerned about their privacy because the internet gives them so many opportunities to socialize and share information?

Our survey suggests that there are a wide range of views among teens about privacy and disclosure of personal information. Whether in an online or offline context, teenagers do not fall neatly into clear-cut groups when it comes to their willingness to disclose information or the ways they restrict access to the information that they do share. For most teens, decisions about privacy and disclosure depend on the nature of the encounter and their own personal circumstances. Teen decisions about whether to disclose or not involve questions like these: Do you live in a small town or big city? How did you create your network of online “friends?” How old are you? Are you male or female? Do your parents have lots of rules about internet use? Do your parents view your profile?  All these questions and more inform the decisions that teens make about how they present themselves online. Many, but not all, teens are aware of the risks of putting information online in a public and durable environment. Many, but certainly not all, teens make thoughtful choices about what to share in what context. 

Teens who have online profiles are generally more likely to say it is okay to give out certain pieces of personal information in offline situations than they are to have that information actually posted to their profile. Teens with online profiles have a greater tendency to say it is fine to share where they go to school, their IM screen name, email address, last name and cell phone number with someone they met at a party, when compared with the percentage who actually post that information online. The only piece of information they are more likely to share online rather than in person with a new acquaintance is the city and state where they live.

Most teen profile creators suspect that a motivated person could eventually identify them. They also think strangers are more likely to contact teens online than offline.

While most teens take steps to limit what others can know about them from their profiles and postings, they also know that the powerful search tools available to internet users could help motivated individuals track them down. Some 23% of teen profile creators say it would be “pretty easy” for someone to find out who they are from the information posted to their profile, and 40% of teens with profiles online think that it would be hard for someone to find out who they are from their profile, but that they could eventually be found online. Another 36% say they think it would be “very difficult” for someone to identify them from their online profile.

Asked where they thought teens were most likely to be approached by a stranger, the majority of online teens believed that people their age were most likely to be approached by strangers online rather than offline. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of online teens believe that someone their age is most likely to be approached by a someone unknown to them online, while 23% of online teens believe it is more likely to take place offline.

One in three (32%) online teens have been contacted online by a stranger. Among those contacted by strangers, two-thirds (65%) said they ignored the contact or deleted it the last time it happened to them. Some 21% have followed up on the encounter by asking for more information from the person contacting them.

Parents are using technical and non-technical measures to protect their children online.

Parents generally think that the internet is a good thing for their children, but few give their children unfettered access at home. Most teens whose online behavior is monitored by their parents recognize that they are being observed.

Focus Group Snapshot:

“My parents limit my time on the Internet. I can
only spend about 1-2 hours of non-school work time
on it. They try checking up on me but I can get away
with a lot if I wanted. They make sure to tell me
never to meet people on it because people
pretend to be someone they are not.”

– Boy, High School

  • 53% of parents say they have filtering software on the computer their child uses at home.1
  • Teens are generally aware that there are filters on their home computers. Half (50%) of teens who go online from home say that the computer they use at home has a filter that keeps them from going to certain websites.
  • 45% of parents have monitoring software that records what users do online.
  • Teens are also relatively aware of monitoring software on their home computers, though less aware than they are of filtering. About a third of teens (35%) with internet access at home believe that there is monitoring software on their home computer.
  • 65% of parents report checking up on their teens after they go online.
  • Teens are now more aware that their parents are “checking up” on them after they go online; 41% of teens who go online from home believe that their parents monitor them after they have gone online, up from 33% in 2004 and 27% in 2000.
  • Home computers are still overwhelmingly located in open family areas of the home; 74% of teens now say the computer they use is in a public place in the home, compared with 73% in 2004 and 70% in 2000.

More households have rules about internet use than have rules about other media.

The internet is a more regulated piece of technology than the television or video game console. Parents are more likely to restrict the type of content their children view online, as well as the amount of time spent on the internet when compared with other media.

  • 85% of parents of online teens say they have rules about internet sites their child can or cannot visit.
  • 75% of parents of online teens say they have rules about the television shows their child can watch.
  • 65% of parents of online teens say they restrict the kinds of video games their child can play.
  • 85% of parents of online teens say they have established rules about the kinds of personal information their child can share with people they talk to on the internet. 
  • 69% say they have household rules for how long a teen can spend online, compared with 57% of parents of online teens who say they restrict the amount of time their child spends watching TV, and the 58% who limit time spent playing video games.

Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks: Summary of Findings at a Glance

  1. The question regarding filtering was asked differently in the 2006 survey than it was in the 2004 survey, thus the two responses can not be directly compared.
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