Social Networking and the Perception of Privacy Within the Millennial Generation

Andra Gumbus,Frances S. Grodzinsky and Stephen Lilley



Has technology caused a generational divide between current college age users who have no problems posting intimate details of their personal life on the Web and more traditional older users? When Scott McNealy, chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems, pronounced that “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” (Sprenger, 1999) he was speaking to middle-aged journalists. Supposedly there is no need to tell this to the younger generation. Many adults are shocked by what they see on Facebook and Myspace and believe that most teenagers don’t take the risks seriously. In an article written for the New York Times “When Information Becomes T.M.I.”, Warren St. John writes, “Through MySpace, personal blogs, YouTube and the like, this generation has seemed to view the notion of personal privacy as a quaint anachronism. Details that those of less enlightened generations might have viewed as embarrassing — who you slept with last night, how many drinks you had before getting sick in your friend’s car, the petty reason you had dropped a friend or been fired from a job — are instead signature elements of one’s personal brand. To reveal, it has seemed is to be” (St. John, 2006).

Gross and Acquisti (2005) found that users may be at risk both online and offline when using social networking sites. Most users, irrespective of age, have little knowledge and don’t understand where their information goes nor consider the consequences of clicking without thinking. They make the mistake of thinking that privacy settings guarantee confidentiality of information posted. But when applications are used, they are downloaded allowing the developer access to the downloader’s information. Issues of ownership of data surfaced in February 2009 when Facebook asserted rights over members’ content even after an account was terminated. (Associated press, 2009). Although Facebook backed down in the face of online protests and bad publicity, the episode demonstrated its potential reach.

Research Questions and Methodologies

Given the important issues at stake, the authors decided to conduct an exploratory study on this generation’s view on privacy and their use of social networking. Is it true that young men and women don’t care about privacy? Do they have little regard for controlling personal information? Are frequent users of social networking sites naïve and acquiescent? To address such questions regarding attitudes toward privacy and knowledge about security of data on social networking sites, we conducted a survey of 251 college students and follow-up focus groups with 16 of those students. We compare younger and older respondents in the Millennial generation and light and heavy users of social networking sites on their survey responses to privacy issues. Focus group participants, aged 18-22, were asked both written and open ended verbal questions regarding their use of social networking sites. Written questions focused on frequency and duration of sites visited, number of various categories of friends, and features of Facebook, such as virtual gift, news feed, social ads, status update, wall, Facebook Connect, random 25, and beacon. To assess the respondents’ awareness about control and ownership of content, we questioned them about Facebook’s terms of service and business practices. The legitimate and illegitimate use of social networking in both work and university contexts were explored as well as harm that can be caused by overuse.

Facebook Nation: Our Findings

From our survey, we found that a majority of students frequently access social networking sites, although non-traditional age students (over 21 ) are much less likely to do so. Heavy users as compared to light users were significantly more likely to take a cavalier attitude about computer use. However, heavy and light users were not significantly different on their attitudes to privacy and internet monitoring. The majority favored privacy protections especially when it comes to sites and communication mediums (e.g., email) deemed part of their personal realm.

Focus groups revealed hours per day on Facebook vary between 1 and 5. Less use of MySpace, LinkedIn, AIM and blogs were reported. All who use Facebook expressed fears regarding invasion of privacy, however, many were ignorant of the specific ways that their content and activities on Facebook could be exploited. They want control over who sees their site and what is on it and all were worried about employer searches. A few seniors (final year students) described steps to “clean up” their sites, as well as, dramatically reduce the number of friends as they approach graduation.

In conclusion, the respondents in this study value privacy and do recognize, in general, the risks of using social networking sites. Some practice caution and avoid the sites or limit their exposure. Still, we find that those who have become dependent on the sites appear to be more passive. One respondent stated that “Facebook is a great network to get in contact with friends… [but] many of its features invade people’s privacy.” Some, but not all, are willing to accept this trade off.


Associated Press, “Facebook Tries Its Hand at Democracy” February 27, 2009 Accessed 3/2/2009

Gates, Anita “For Baby Boomers, the Joys of Facebook” New York Times, March 22, 2009 CT7

Gross, Ralph and Acquisti, Allesandro “Information Revelation and Privacy in Online Social Networks” in Proceedings of the 2005 Workshop on privacy in the Electronic Society ( WPES), ACM, 71 – 80, 2005.

Sprenger, P. (1999) “Sun on Privacy: ‘Get Over It”, Wired., Accessed July 2, 2009.

St. John, Warren (2006) “When Information is T.M.I.” New York Times, September 10,2006, Information%20Becomes%20T.M.I.%22%20%20sept%202006&st=cse/ Accessed February 21, 2009.