Sponsored By

Privacy MattersPrivacy Matters

Though they've grown up in the Internet age, teens don't take their privacy for granted.

9 Min Read

Teen-agers growing up in the computer age hear the same rules about safety as their parents once did: Don't talk to strangers and don't give out your name, phone number, or address to anyone that you don't know or trust. But for teen-agers who spend almost two hours a day online, the game has changed. Sharing personal data on the Internet comes down to a question of who's asking--and what they're offering in return.

Some teens are adamant about keeping their personal information private. "It's a given that I don't give out personal information," says Jeremy Allen-Arney, a 10th-grader at the Dalton School in New York. Others will give up a little information in exchange for goods, services, or special privileges. Although 16-year-old Bhagli Suren, a senior at John Bowne High School in Queens, N.Y., didn't have to provide an address to subscribe to a Rolling Stone online newsletter, she gave hers anyway in the hopes of getting published when she sends letters to the editor. "The more information I can give them, the more they'll see that I'm interested in what they're doing, and maybe they'll put my letters in the magazine," she says. While teens are more experienced than many of their parents when it comes to electronic communication, they are concerned about online privacy. But there's a difference between the generations: While adults tend to fret about security issues such as credit-card fraud, teens worry more about having their privacy invaded by unwanted marketing and spam. While 73% of adults don't buy online because of privacy concerns, only 40% of people ages 16 to 22 don't shop online, because they don't want to give out personal information on the Internet, according to a Forrester Research survey of more than 10,000 North American Internet-savvy youths. Those who sell to them, or will some day employ them, need to understand their expectations. Jasmine Steadman -- Photo by Rachelle Mozman

Steadman, 15, doesn't think online shopping is as safe as it is in the real world.Fifteen-year old Jasmine Steadman, a 10th-grader at the Science Skills Center High School in Brooklyn, N.Y., is too young to own a credit card, but she's already leery of E-commerce. "Shopping online is less safe" than shopping in a physical store, Steadman says, because "there's a possibility your authorization code could be passed on to other sites. When you give out your personal information to certain sites, there are companies they're affiliated with that can get your phone number. They can call you, and that can become a nag." Matt Ellis, a 19-year-old college sophomore at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Ind., is more experienced with credit cards and online shopping and has few reservations about shopping online or giving out his credit-card number. "If it's not a no-name company, I don't have a problem giving out information," Ellis says. Ellis tries to minimize the potential risk of fraud or privacy breaches online by shopping at well-known sites, such as Amazon.com and Buy.com. And if you're wondering who actually reads those lengthy online privacy policies, well, Ellis does before divulging any personal data. And he keeps up on news about changes to privacy policies through technology publications and other media. Ellis isn't much concerned with identity or credit-card theft. His main interest is in protecting himself from unwanted advertising, or spam. "I don't want to be bothered with a bunch of advertising," he says. "I'd rather take the five minutes up front to look over a privacy policy than to have junk come in the rest of the time." But his system isn't foolproof. Internet companies sometimes take action to ensure that online consumers receive their promotions, whether they want them or not. Ellis recalls an upsetting experience he had when Yahoo reset his privacy settings back to the default, which permits the company and its partners to send promotions and advertisements Ellis didn't want--and which he had actively opted out of. "I can't believe they had the nerve to say 'We reset your privacy settings in case you didn't mean to check 'no' to every one of these boxes,'" he says. "Now I think twice about doing business with them." Ellis' dad, Bob, on the other hand, is more concerned with identity theft and having his Social Security number stolen than he is about getting spam. But like his son, the independent stock trader skims the online privacy policies of sites he's going to do business with, looking for key words and phrases such as "We will not ..." The senior Ellis says he's abandoned online registration processes that require more information than he's willing to give up. Teens aren't nearly as spooked as adults about giving companies their personal data, says Matt Diamond, chairman and CEO of Alloy Inc., a New York multimedia company that markets clothing, accessories and editorial content to teen-agers. Alloy is careful about sending unsolicited messages to teens, because the political environment has made it "so sensitive about interacting with kids in a way that will not be perceived as intrusive," Diamond says. But tech-adept teens are proactively requesting information specific to their interests, he says. For instance, teen boys interested in skateboarding or BMX biking will request just those catalogs from Alloy, as opposed to a general catalog that briefly addresses those interests. "Adults may not mind perusing through a catalog," Diamond says, "but a teen has less of an attention span. They know what they want and want to go right to it." Teens also use the Internet to experiment with their own identities. "Sometimes kids will be online instant messaging others using a screen name and simultaneously be on the phone using their real name to carry on these two conversations and identities," says David Thornburg, founder of the Thornburg Center, a Lake Barrington, Ill., consulting firm that studies the use of technology in education. Teen-agers think of technology as a communications tool and are open to sharing ideas and information using the Internet, Thornburg says. In the process, they often adopt multiple identities when they're online to experiment with who they are, as well as do things they couldn't or wouldn't do in-person. "Teen girls, and to some extent teen boys, use the Internet to flirt and even date in ways that we did over soda," says Judy Bardwick, a psychologist and grandmother of two. But the anonymity afforded by the Internet makes this type of online social interaction much more dangerous, she says. "It's so easy and so cheap to get tremendous amounts of details about anyone's life, and there are no controls about the use of this information," she says. The result can be a loss of control over one's identity, Bardwick says. "What is known about you and what might be said is less in your control and less subject to validation." In some cases, teen-agers have to lose their privacy or be faced with the threat of losing their privacy before they realize the risks they take when they engage with others in a world beyond their computer screen. High-school student Suren says talk shows and recent stories in the news about pedophiles and child sexual abuse have caused her to worry about kids who reveal their age online. "Sometimes kids use their date of birth in their screen name, and that's not safe," she says. "You think you're safe because you're in your home, but you're actually letting a stranger into your house by talking on the computer." Ogheneruemu Oyiborhoro, a 10th grader at the School for International Studies in Brooklyn, N.Y., agrees that revealing too much online could be deadly. People are getting killed for sharing personal data on the Internet, he says, referring to recent incidents in which teen-age girls have been raped, murdered, or abducted by men with whom they developed romantic relationships online. When 10th-grader Steadman applied for a free E-mail address with Yahoo, she knew she didn't want to use her real name in her address. She fears having her name leaked to strangers when her friends send electronic chain letters to her and copy many other addresses. Other teen-agers try to use technology to protect themselves by taking advantage of the privacy the Internet affords. Matt Ellis admits to using multiple E-mail addresses to mask his identity to pesky advertisers. "I just don't want to be bothered," he says, which is why he uses one E-mail address to correspond with friends and another to complete online forms. "I don't know if the company will end up selling that information. If they start sending junk, it doesn't matter, because I don't look at that E-mail address that often." Adults, on the other hand, tend to use E-mail in the same way that they use other methods of communication. If Bob Ellis wanted to minimize the effects of unwieldy spam in his in-box, he says his approach would differ from that of his son's. "I would be more inclined to change my E-mail address and let people know the new address instead of having a separate one," he says, because that's the way he would deal with excessive calls from telemarketers. Teen-agers growing up with technology say they're increasingly likely to surrender personal information in exchange for personalized services from vendors they know and trust. Alloy's Diamond is counting on it. "As technology improves and as our customers are willing to allow us to understand more about them, there will be more targeted marketing," he says. As far as some teens are concerned, that may not be such a bad thing. The key is taking that targeted approach. Matt Ellis, who buys books and CDs from Amazon, says he's thinking about sharing information about some of his preferences with the online retailer so he can get better purchase recommendations when he signs in. "Product recommendations is a good feature, because it introduces me to new bands that I might be interested in," he says. "If I trust the company, I wouldn't have a problem using it and giving them my personal information to make it work better."

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights