Three in 10 young adults surveyed say they "never" trust social media sites.

It might go against conventional wisdom, but a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project is adding fuel to the argument that young people are fast becoming the gurus of online reputation management, especially when it comes to social networking sites.

Among other things, the study found that young adults ages 18-29 are the most likely to limit the amount of personal information they share online—and the least likely to trust free online services ranging from Facebook to LinkedIn and MySpace.

Marlene McManus, 21, is among those young adults. On the job hunt since graduating from Clark University in Massachusetts, she’s been “scouring” her Facebook page, removing photos that contain beer cups and any other signs of college exploits. She’s also dropped Twitter altogether.

“I have to present a public face that doesn’t have the potential to hurt my image,” McManus says.

She has seen otherwise upstanding adults, well past their 20s, sharing compromising photos and questionable rants with too many people online. “I get embarrassed for these people and sometimes just want to shake them,” she says.

In this instance, adults over the age of 30 might do well to listen. The Pew study is the latest in a mounting body of new research that suggests the very generation accused of sharing too much information online is actually leading the pack in online privacy.

The Pew study found, for instance, that social networkers ages 18 to 29 were the most likely to change the privacy settings on their profiles to limit what they share with others online. The percentage who did so was 71 percent, compared with just 55 percent of the 50- to 64-year-old bracket. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of all social networkers who were surveyed said they’ve tightened their security settings.

The survey also determined that:

• About half of young people in that 18-29 bracket have deleted comments that others have made on their profile, compared with just 29 percent of those ages 30 to 49 and 26 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds. The numbers were similar when it came to social networkers who removed their names from photos that were tagged to identify them.

• When asked how much they can trust social networking sites, 28 percent of the youngest adults surveyed said “never.” A fifth of those surveyed in the 30-49 age bracket said that, and just 14 percent of those ages 50 to 64 agreed.

The Pew report, which was released May 27, was compiled from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research International between Aug. 18 and Sept. 14, 2009, among a sample of 2,253 adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

Mary Madden, the Pew researcher who was the study’s lead author, says the findings partly reflect the fact that young people have been using social networking longer than their elders, thus making them more experienced in dealing with its intricacies.

But she says young adults also are at a point in their lives where, like McManus, they’re looking for work and just starting to develop a name for themselves.


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