Teens are into online sharing, but are also more privacy-aware

Teens are sharing more information about themselves on social media sites than they have in the past, but they are also taking a variety of technical and non-technical steps to manage the privacy of that information.

Despite taking these privacy-protective actions, teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-parties (such as businesses or advertisers) accessing their data; just 9% say they are “very” concerned.

These are among the new findings from a nationally representative Pew Research Center survey of 802 youth ages 12-17 and their parents that explored technology use. Key findings include:

Teens are sharing more information about themselves on their social media profiles than they did when they last surveyed in 2006.

60% of teen Facebook users set their Facebook profiles to private (friends only), and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings, with 56% of them saying it’s “not difficult at all” to manage the privacy controls on their Facebook profile, and 33% saying it’s “not too difficult.”

Teens take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to see.

  • 59% have deleted or edited something that they posted in the past.
  • 53% have deleted comments from others on their profile or account.
  • 45% have removed their name from photos that have been tagged to identify them.
  • 31% have deleted or deactivated an entire profile or account.
  • Focus group participants report that they are able to manage their privacy on social media sites, usually by deciding what content to post rather than by managing its dissemination via privacy settings.

Teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data. Focus group findings suggest teens have mixed feelings about advertising practices, ranging from ignorance, indifference, to annoyance. Some teens may not realize how their personal information is being used by third parties. Others see them as necessary to provide the service or even as welcomed content about brands they like. Some teens are annoyed by ads and find them “creepy” when they are targeted and highly personalized.

“Far from being privacy indifferent, today’s teens are mindful about what they post, even if their primary focus and motivation is often their engagement with an audience of friends and family, rather than how their online behavior might be tracked by advertisers or other third parties,” said Mary Madden, Senior Researcher for the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and co-author of the report.

While Facebook remains the most commonly used social media site, teen Twitter use has grown significantly: One in four (24%) online teens uses Twitter, up from 16% in 2011. But even as nearly eight in ten online teens have Facebook profiles, teen users report mixed feelings about it. The typical (median) teen Facebook user has 300 friends, while the typical teen Twitter user has 79 followers. And 64% of teens with Twitter accounts say that their tweets are public, while 24% say their tweets are private.

“Our focus group findings revealed complex and often negative feelings about Facebook interactions,” said Sandra Cortesi, Director of the Youth and Media Project at the Berkman Center and a contributor to this report. “Many teens longed for some online place that was free of “drama,’ and complex audience management requirements. Instead, some are turning to Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat to avoid these difficult peer dynamics.”

Teens with larger Facebook networks are more frequent users of social media sites and tend to have a greater variety of people in their friend networks—such as teachers, coaches, celebrities and other non-famous people they have never met in person. They also share a wider range of information on their profile when compared with those who have a smaller number of friends on the site. Yet even as they share more information with a wider range of people, they are also more actively engaged in maintaining their online profile or persona.

The complete findings of the study are detailed in a the report, which you can download here.

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