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Millennials: Savvy on Privacy

(This story has been updated to include Facebook's May 26 announcement about its new privacy controls.)

Facebook has been criticized by users who balk at the social network's frequent changes to its privacy controls. It's little wonder, since nearly two-thirds of adults who use social networks on the Web adjust these settings to limit what they share with others, according to the results of a survey published May 26 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The findings from the Washington research group's survey of 2,253 U.S. adults sheds light on the increasing attention people are giving to managing their online identities. Young adults are especially vigilant about guarding those identities from prying eyes, the survey found.

Seventy-one percent of social networking users aged 18 to 29 said they'd adjusted privacy settings on social networks in order to make some information private, according to the survey. Among members of generation X, aged 30 to 49, 62 percent said they'd made such changes. And 55 percent of baby boomers aged 50 to 64 said they'd changed from the default privacy settings on a social network. "Contrary to common assumptions, young people are in many ways the most active managers of online identities," says Mary Madden, senior research specialist with Pew and co-author of the study.

Younger Faces, More Photos

Millennials are more visible on the Web. Respondents aged 18 to 29 were the most likely to say they'd posted photos of themselves and other personal data for others to see on such Web sites as Facebook and MySpace (NWS). Among social network users, 78 percent of millennials said photos of themselves are available online, vs. 65 percent of those aged 30 to 49 and 66 percent of respondents aged 50 and older.

Pew compiled data for its Reputation Management and Social Media report through phone interviews with 2,253 adults aged 18 and older. The surveys were conducted by Princeton Survey Research in August and September 2009.

The findings send a message to operators of social networks, such as Facebook, which may not consider the interests of millions of young users when they introduce new ways of controlling privacy online, says Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington, D.C., policy research institute. "These are active tools that users are utilizing to control their online experience. When you change them, it's like moving the pedals around in the car," he says.

Facebook is responding to requests from many of its more than 400 million users for easier-to-use privacy controls for its Web site. The company on May 26 unveiled simplified tools for users to manage how information on their profiles is shared, and which make it easier for them to decline to share information with other Web sites. "The number one thing we've heard is that there just needs to be a simpler way to control your information," Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a blog post. Pew collected its data in August and September 2009, so responses don't reflect the effect of recent privacy changes made by the site.

Searching for the Gossip

In addition to selectively revealing information that they post online, members of the millennial generation are also avid curators of content others post on the Web, the Pew report said. Among those 18 to 29, 47 percent said they've deleted comments on social networks left by their friends. Just 29 percent of generation X members and 26 percent of boomers said they'd done the same.

In some respects, Web users are getting more vigilant across the board about their online reputations. Although fewer people are concerned about how much information is available about them online (33 percent said they were, compared with 40 percent in December 2006), more of them are getting a handle on it. Pew said that 57 percent of Web users use Google (GOOG) or other search engines to research what's being said about them online, vs. 47 percent of users who said they did so in Pew's 2006 survey.

It isn't just fellow social network users who are seeking out information online, though. Employers routinely search social networks for information about job applicants, says the Future of Privacy Forum's Polonetsky. According to the Pew survey, 4 percent of Internet users said they'd had "bad experiences" because of information that was posted about them online. Polonetsky said the percentage "seems low" and that some users may not be aware of "some of the negative impact of the data being used against them," such as when it's viewed by potential employers.

MacMillan is a reporter for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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