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Once more for the cheap seats: young people care about privacy

A statistics cheat sheet with an Australian focus

As a privacy professional, I’ve often encountered the claim that ‘young people don’t care about privacy’. For example, in May 2021 former Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, made this claim:

“The Facebook generation, the digital natives … look at the stuff people put on Facebook, for heaven’s sake. So it’s a different world, but I think that my generation — I’m in my mid 60s — is, I think, more sensitive to data then perhaps people in their 30s”.

This is, basically, a complete and total myth.

Numerous studies and survey show that the majority of Australian young people care very much about privacy, specifically make choices based on the impacts on their privacy, and are more able to use privacy controls in digital spaces than older demographics.

Here are some relevant statistics, focusing on my home country of Australia.

Yes, young people care about privacy

  • In response to the proposition “There is no privacy - get over it”, 41.9% of people aged 18–29 disagreed. This was greater than the 30–39 age bracket, and the over 50s. Interestingly, people over 70 were mostly likely to agree with the statement. (University of Sydney, 2017).
  • 66% of Australians aged 18–34 feel that the protection of their personal information is a major concern for them (OAIC Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey 2020).
  • 95% of Australians aged 18–24 feel that feel that privacy is ‘quite important’, ‘very important’ or ‘extremely important’ when choosing a digital service. While only 29% of this bracket responded that privacy was ‘extremely important’ — as opposed to the national average of 54% — it’s clearly incorrect to say that young people ‘don’t care’ about privacy (OAIC 2020).
  • 54% of young people (18–24) consider privacy to be in the top 3 most important issues when choosing a digital service (OAIC 2020).
  • 75% of young people aged 18–24 think that identity theft and fraud are some of the biggest risks to their privacy (OAIC 2020).
  • 34% of those aged 18–24 feel that ‘sending information’ overseas is a risk (OAIC 2020).
  • While young people are more comfortable with online tracking and targeted digital advertising than other demographics, 1/5 of people aged 18–24 are still ‘very uncomfortable’ with this kind of behaviour. (OAIC 2020).
  • 66% of 18–24 year olds care enough about the protection of their personal information to ‘actually do something about it’. Notably, the belief that it’s ‘too much effort’ is highest among Australians aged 50 and over (77%) (OAIC 2020).

Young people believe they’re more able to control their privacy

  • According to the University of Sydney, 49% of people 18–29 feel they are able to control their privacy online — more than any other age group. Only 38% of Australians overall felt that they could control their online privacy (University of Sydney, 2017). Similarly, the OAIC also found that young Australians are more likely to feel in control of their privacy — 43% of those aged 18–34 feel in control, as opposed to 35% of 35–49 year olds and 27% of over the 50s set (OAIC 2020). Perhaps this is unsurprising given that, by the time they are 16, 92% of Australians are social media users (Australian Communications and Media Authority, Kids and Teens Online, 2014).
  • Only 35% of Australians aged 18–34 reported experiencing problems with how their personal information was handled as a result of direct marketing; whereas 49% the over 50s had issues — this is likely because younger people better understand how to use unsubscribe facilities and change marketing preferences (OAIC 2020).
  • 54% of Australians aged 18–34 state that they have a clear idea of how to protect their personal information; this is higher than other demographics. Only 43% of people over 50 feel the same way (OAIC 2020).

Young people exercise more control over their privacy

  • The University of Sydney found that 67% of Australians under 40 reported that they took active steps to protect their privacy online; this was about the same as the 40–59 bracket (69%) and the 70+ bracket (66%) (University of Sydney, 2017).
  • The OAIC found that younger Australians (18–34) are far more likely to adjust privacy settings on social media — 55%, as opposed to 35% for over the 50s (OAIC 2020). Similarly, the University of Sydney found that under 40s were far more likely to adjust social media settings (67%, as opposed to 59% for the 40–59 bracket and 51% for the 70+ bracket) (University of Sydney, 2017).
  • The Office of the eSafety Commissioner similarly found that 68% of young Australians (8–17) who use social media actively manage their online privacy. Specifically, teens were active in blocking or unfriending (64%), increasing privacy settings (57%), or ensuring location data was not published (49%). Only 13% of teens had taken no steps to protect their privacy (Office of the eSafety Commissioner, State of Play — Youth, Kids and Digital Dangers, 2018, insights here).
  • Younger Australians (18–34) are more likely use ad blockers, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), privacy-focused search engines or incognito mode to protect their privacy — 40%, as opposed to 30% for people over 50 (OAIC 2020).

What about research from other jurisdictions?

Much of the research on this issue is starting to feel a bit dated, but there are still some pieces that are worth considering:

LSE Media and Communications:

Cisco:

  • Cisco Consumer Privacy Survey (2019) — Cisco founds that ‘Privacy actives’ — people who care about privacy, are willing to act to protect their privacy, and have switched companies or providers over privacy concerns — are more likely to be younger (aged 18–44) than older (45+).

First Monday:

[I]t is often presumed that users of online social media, in particular young people, voluntarily share data. However, the respondents in this study envisioned two types of “privacy”. They share data about themselves voluntarily in social circles with a view to their “social privacy” (identity and social network management), but “data sharing” with unknown entities: the “repurposing” of their data (data mining, commercial use) is perceived as a precondition for social participation and can therefore not be designated as a voluntary act.

Bulletin of Science, Technology & Security:

[A]dolescents attribute high value to privacy and are prepared to actively oppose if an online corporation is challenging their personal interests. However, they tend to trade off privacy for other perceived benefits. Adolescents’ privacy perception and data protection are affected by cultural diversity, age, gender, and most of all their various social network sites activities and their attitudes toward importance of sharing and controlling personal information.

Pew Research Center:

Young adults generally are more focused than their elders when it comes to online privacy.

Younger adults are more likely to know that personal information about them is available online and to have experienced privacy problems. By the same token, our surveys have found that those ages 18 to 29 are more likely than older adults to say they have paid attention to privacy issues, tried to protect their privacy and reported some kind of harm because of privacy problems. They are more likely to have limited the amount of personal information available about them online, changed privacy settings, deleted unwanted comments on social media, removed their name from photos in which they were tagged, and taken steps to mask their identities while online.

  • Teens, Social Media and Privacy (2013) — Pew noted that (US) teens were sharing more information about themselves than other demographics and than in previous years; but nevertheless 60% of teen Facebook users were keeping their account private and curating access. That is, the surveyed teens cared about privacy, but made different choices about what they disclosed about themselves, and to whom.
  • Teens and Mobile Apps Privacy (2013) — Pew had some interesting findings in this survey of US teenagers, including:

51% of teen apps users have avoided certain apps due to privacy concerns.

26% of teen apps users have uninstalled an app because they found out it was collecting personal information that they didn’t wish to share.

46% of teen apps users have turned off location tracking features on their cell phone or in an app because they were worried about the privacy of their information.

So what?

So stop saying that young people don’t care about privacy! They demonstrably do. All this claim does is alienate your younger customers and users.

Design your systems and processes to be privacy protective for everyone, not just young people. Be transparent with your users, and give them practical, useable and meaningful choices about how their data is used. Or, pretty soon, you might not have any users.

I’m an Australian privacy and information governance policy specialist with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies. @timdesousa

I’m an Australian privacy and information governance policy specialist with a focus on innovation and emerging technologies. @timdesousa