Students aren’t ‘nonchalant’ about Facebook privacy, report says

Frequent Facebook users are more likely to change their privacy settings.
Frequent Facebook users are more likely to change their privacy settings.

A close look at college students’ reaction to Facebook privacy policies revealed concern about online identities as news outlets pushed the issue to the forefront with increasing coverage in 2009 and 2010, according to a report released this month.

Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor at Northwestern University’s communication studies department, and Danah Boyd, a researcher for Microsoft Research and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, found that most Facebook members altered their privacy settings in the past year while privacy advocates railed against gaps in the social media site’s identification security.

Hargittai and Boyd based their report on a survey of University of Illinois Chicago students conducted during the 2008-09 academic year and the 2009-10 school year. The researchers had a response rate of 45 percent among more than 1,000 students surveyed. The researchers’ report is published in the journal First Monday.

“Overall, our data show that far from being nonchalant and unconcerned about privacy matters, the majority of young adult users of Facebook are engaged with managing their privacy settings on the site at least to some extent,” the researchers said in their report, adding that privacy setting changes were not “universal” among survey respondents.

“While many believe youth are disconnected from public discourse [we] found that teenagers’ rhetoric about online safety with regard to social media mirrored the narratives presented by the news media.”

The reason for the surge in privacy concerns is largely undetermined, according to the report.

Privacy setting changes could have been “connected to the public discussions that took place about the topic between 2009 and 2010”–which included daily news items about personal Facebook profile information that could be accessed by any web user–or the privacy prompts Facebook launched in December 2009.

The researchers found that Facebook members who used the site frequently were more likely to adjust their privacy options, showing that “technological familiarity matters when it comes to how people approach the privacy settings of their Facebook accounts.”

Boyd and Hargittai credited Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg–at least partly–for the social media privacy controversy.

Their report includes a quote from Zuckerberg: “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.”

Facebook’s policies drew more negative attention when the site presented a message to its users asking them to confirm their privacy settings. The default setting was to “make user content publicly accessible to all Facebook users and anyone else who had enough technical savvy to access the data using the tools that Facebook made available to software developers,” the report said.

Hundreds of newspaper and magazine stories about Facebook’s privacy settings followed, and after reports like Time’s article, “Facebook … and how it’s redefining privacy,” Zuckerberg and Facebook officials simplified the site’s privacy options.

This isn’t the first time research has shown that college students are concerned about their online identities.

Seven in 10 social media users 18-29 years old said they changed their privacy settings in fall 2009, according to a report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Sixty-two percent of respondents 30-49 years old said they changed their privacy options, and 55 percent of those 50-64 years old had altered their settings.

“Search engines and social media sites now play a central role in building one’s identity online,” Mary Madden, senior research specialist and lead author of the report, said in a statement.
“Many users are learning and refining their approach as they go–changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online.”

The percentage of Americans concerned about identity protection on social media sites such as Facebook has dropped in recent years, according to the Pew survey. Thirty-three percent of respondents in the 2009 survey said they “worry about how much information is available about them online,” down from 40 percent in 2006.

Only 4 percent of respondents to the Pew study said they had a “bad experience because embarrassing or inaccurate information was posted about them online,” identical to the 2006 response. About 8 percent of survey respondents said they had requested that personal online information be removed, down slightly from 6 percent in 2006.