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Privacy-aware teens spell trouble for Facebook

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By Simon Davies

A research report released yesterday indicates possible troubled times ahead for Facebook among its younger users. Teens are becoming increasingly fatigued by the site and are finding their social network excitement elsewhere. Importantly, they are becoming more wise to the misuse of their information.

An encouraging number of them take steps to protect their identity and privacy.

The report, published by the Pew Research Center at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, interviewed 822 teens about their experience of Facebook and their social networking behaviour. It concluded that significant shifts have taken place in the past six years in the attitude of teens both toward social networking and their interaction on social networking sites. The report compares survey results over the six year period.

The report noted: “Those teens who used sites like Twitter and Instagram reported feeling like they could better express themselves on these platforms, where they felt freed from the social expectations and constraints of Facebook. Some teens may migrate their activity and attention to other sites to escape the drama and pressures they find on Facebook, although most still remain active on Facebook as well.”

The results on privacy aspects are interesting: “Teen social media users do not express a high level of concern about third-party access to their data; just 9% say they are “very” concerned.”

A more aware user population disclosing a greater amount of information will be more discerning and less tolerant of misuse of data.

This low expression of concern is of particular note given that teens are reporting a much higher level of disclosure of personal information on social networking sites. 20 percent post their cellphone number, up from two percent six years ago, and 53 percent post their email address, up from 29 percent. 92 percent post their real name and 82 percent disclose their birth date.

Although their expressed concern over privacy is perhaps lower than might be expected, the online behaviour of teens tells a different story.  An encouraging number of them take steps to protect their identity and privacy. One in four (26%) teen social media users say that they post false information such as a fake name, age or location to help protect their privacy.

Again on the positive side, 60% of teen Facebook users keep their profiles private, and most report high levels of confidence in their ability to manage their settings. Teens also take other steps to shape their reputation, manage their networks, and mask information they don’t want others to know; 74% of teen social media users have deleted people from their network or friends list.

The findings do not bode well for Facebook. The survey clearly indicates that young users are becoming more educated about information management issues. A more aware user population disclosing a greater amount of information will be more discerning and less tolerant of misuse of data. On both counts Facebook needs to review its trends to ensure that trust is not breached across an entire generation of users.