Flawed Online Privacy Study Obscures Age Differences

Ara Trembly
Insurance Experts' Forum, April 19, 2010

Hot from our Counterintuitive News Department comes a story from Associated Press (AP) saying that a new study has found that “young adults generally care as much about privacy as older Americans.”

The report, from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, is touted to be “among the first quantitative studies looking at young people's attitudes toward privacy as government officials and corporate executives alike increasingly grapple with such issues,” says the AP.

I must admit I was shocked at the assertion that “young adults” (which the study defines as people between the ages of 18 and 24) are just as concerned about privacy—particularly online privacy—as older adults. My own experience with this age group, along with countless media reports, would strongly suggest otherwise. How then, could the results tell us that there is no gulf in dissemination of private information between the young group and older users? The answer is: It doesn’t.

Consider some study results as reported by the AP. Eighty-eight percent of people of all ages (the study surveyed 1,000 Americans via telephone) said they have refused to give out information to a business because they thought it was too personal or unnecessary. Among young adults, 82% have refused, compared with 85% of those over 65 (interestingly, not just everyone over age 24). Sounds like both groups are in agreement, right? But what isn’t addressed here is just where each group draws the line between something being “too personal” or not. So a 21-year-old might not think revealing part of one’s sexual history is too personal, while a 45-year-old would tend to be a bit more demure. Both could report that they refused to give out personal or unnecessary information, but they are saying that from far different perspectives.

In another study finding, most people (86%) believe that anyone who posts a photo or video of them on the Internet should get their permission first, even if that photo was taken in public. Among young adults 18 to 24, says the AP, 84% agreed—not far from the 90% among those 45 to 54 (again, not the whole 24-upper age limit group). Again there appears to be agreement, but just asking a question about whether someone posting a photo of you on the Internet should have permission really tells us nothing about how revealing or embarrassing such a photo would have to be in order for you to refuse that permission. The question, in a sense, ignores the actual boundaries of privacy for each respondent.

Let me cite one further example from the AP. Forty percent of adults ages 18 to 24 believe executives should face jail time if their company uses someone's personal information illegally—the same as the response among those 35 to 44 years old. Right: Anyone who uses our “personal” information illegally should do jail time, but this question leaves it up to the “personal” preference of the responder to decide what information is “personal” and what isn’t. If experience can be our guide, younger adults will have a different idea of “personal” than older folks.

In essence, the study questions and their results prove nothing more than that most of us, regardless of age, don’t want our privacy violated. The serious flaw here is that everyone surveyed is applying his or her own standard of privacy, which makes this particular research a useless academic exercise.

More helpful research needs to focus on what constitutes sensitive and private information in the minds of the age groups studied. Researchers might develop a “privacy scale” that would enable respondents to rate the sensitivity of different kinds of information. Such data would prove very useful to insurers and others who seek to reach these groups via the kinds of social media that promote sharing of what some would consider private information.

I knew all those years of graduate school would pay off some day!

Ara C. Trembly ( is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at

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