Privacy and Age Online

The Need for Nuanced Research

Many existing studies (often focused on adolescent or student samples) try to make general assumptions about how humans regard privacy and what actions they take, or fail to take, to protect their own privacy.

But Blank, Bolsover, and Dubois (2014) found that only three peer-reviewed papers that addressed questions of privacy using a sample that could be generalized to a population.

This post also challenges how far findings about the privacy attitudes and behaviours of individual users of social networks can be generalised.  Sheehan (2002, pp 30), for example, recognised that ‘the vast majority of online users have concerns about privacy that vary depending on the situation. This finding supports previous assertions as to the contextual nature of privacy.’ Overall it is understood that privacy as a concept is very hard to pin down and contains a number of sub-elements.

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The Privacy Paradox

Research has found that privacy is a key concern for people, but at the same time individuals routinely reveal their personal information (including potentially sensitive data) online.

On social network sites, this can mean that individuals fail to follow the main strategies to protect their privacy, including using privacy control settings, and limiting self-disclosure.

It has been suggested that consumers feel they don’t have ‘meaningful choices’ when using social media, particularly if they are following ‘peers’, and consumers will stay with the same providers even if they are unhappy with how they think their data is being used.  Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg justified loosening default privacy settings by saying “Privacy is no longer a social norm”.

A recent study (Athey, Catalini and Tucker, 2017) found that people are quick to give up their personal data when:

  1. incentivised (with relatively small incentives) online,
  2. faced with minor inconveniences (small ‘navigation costs’), and
  3. provided with irrelevant or reassuring information about privacy protection.  

Athey, Catalini and Tucker (2017) mention a growing literature which looks at how psychological, cognitive (e.g attention), and social factors impact on economic choices.

In the case of students, there may be peer pressure in a context where  people are focused on fitting in and fear ‘isolation’. This might mean students might follow their peers on social networks, whatever the privacy consequences, but it might also mean that they are sensitive about what they reveal about themselves and more wary of ‘keeping face’.  

Differences in experience and/or cognitive capacity is likely to impact on the ability of the individual to make effective rational choices. For example someone who is highly educated and understands the potential risks and consequences of sharing data online, might make very different choices from someone has low levels of literacy and/or self-control.  Studies have also found that persons with higher levels of education are more concerned about their privacy online than persons with less education (Sheehan, 2002)

People may want to have different privacy levels/settings depending on their audiences, and this can become a major issue when social networks that were originally set up for niche markets become more global forums.  This is called ‘context collapse’, and can lead to users becoming alienated from social platforms. Context collapse can have negative consequences for the individual e.g  posts people have written in a student environment might suddenly become visible to potential employers. 

How Useful are ‘Categories’ based on Age?

Various research studies have also suggested that different generations can have different perspectives of privacy – with older generations being more likely to be careful of how they share information. Other studies have found that older age groups, despite their higher privacy concern, are less knowledgeable of privacy settings, and use privacy tools and settings less frequently. There have also been findings that older users have higher levels of concern about cybersecurity risks, and this means that they were less likely to engage ‘online’.  

But such findings might have been influenced by  age stereotyping, and so need to be considered with care.

In a seminal work, Westin (1991) noted that privacy surveys since 1978 had shown age to be a more important factor in explaining attitudes towards privacy than any other demographic characteristic. Westin (1991) found that young people (18-29) were least concerned about threats to privacy, while older people (50+) were the most concerned.  But even at this time, Westin acknowledged that the interaction between age and privacy attitudes would be complex, and that more complete analysis of the role age played was required.

In the 1991 survey, Westin also distinguished between three categories including: privacy fundamentalists (25%), the unconcerned (18%) and the pragmatic majority (57%).  These categories have been used to examine privacy, including by age group.

Further research studies have been undertaken into the interaction between Westin’s typologies and age groups, but these reveal so many exceptions if feels like the research findings are being forced into the categories.  For example Sheehan (2002) found that internet users who were 45 years of age or older made up the majority of both the unconcerned, and very concerned category.  Dupree, DeVries, Berry, and Lank (2016) recommended that age related findings needed to be considered with care, as older adults did not fall into a single category.

Blank, Bolsover, G., and Dubois (2014) found a negative relationship between age and privacy, with younger people in the UK more likely to have taken action to protect their privacy.  It was suggested by the authors of the study that ‘the new privacy paradox is that these sites have become so embedded in the social lives of users that they must disclose information on them despite the fact that these sites do not provide adequate privacy controls’.  It was also noted in this study that there had been limited systematic research into the impact of personal characteristics on attitudes to privacy.


In designing our social network ‘MeetingofMinds’ there is a need to be mindful of how different people might view privacy. This can potentially vary dependent on personal characteristics and their interaction with specific contexts/situations. There is, however, also a need to recognise that some of the previous research studies of how younger and older people view privacy, may have been tainted to some degree by wider social stereotyping.   

Our network is not going to make the lazy assumption that academics are older and students are younger. (research shows a wide age range across both groups.  We will also acknowledge that our user population is  very diverse and that attitudes to privacy will vary.  Rather than design for particular age groups (or any other specific groups), it would be better to adopt universal design principles, so our Social Network is accessible and usable by everyone.

Research suggests that all age groups will potentially have privacy concerns, and an ethical social network should acknowledge this. Greater attention of privacy concerns is also becoming standard business practice – as some  social media giants have begun to acknowledge privacy concerns in their own strategies. It has been reported in the media (e.g Duggan, 2018) that Facebooks new ‘privacy effort’ may be partly in response to the requirements of European Union General Data Protection Regulation which is due to come into effect this year.  The model of easily persuading social network users (particularly those with social, cognitive or other vulnerabilities) to give up their privacy and the right to own and control their personal data, may be left increasingly open to legal challenge.

By Nina Schuller


Athey, S, Catalini C, and Tucker, E, C (2017) ‘The Digital Privacy Paradox: Small Money, Small Costs, Small Talk’.  Stanford Business.  Available at: (Accessed on the 18 March 2017)

Blank G, Bolsover, G., and Dubois, E (2014) A New Privacy Paradox: Young people and privacy on social network sites.  Global Cyber Security Capacity Centre: Draft Working Paper. University of Oxford. Available from (Access on the 18 March 2017).

Duggan, W (2018) ‘Why Facebook Is Rolling Out a New Privacy Effort’. 29 January. Available at (Accessed on 18 March 2018)

Dupree, J., Devries, R., Berry, D., & Lank, E. (2016). Privacy personas. In Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 5228–5239). New York: ACM.

HESA (2018) Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2016/17. HESA. Available from (Accessed on the 18 March 2018)

Sheehan, K, B (2002) ‘Toward a Typology of Internet Users and Online Privacy Concerns’. The Information Society, 18, pp 21-32. Available at (Accessed on the 18 March 2018)

Van den Broeck, E, and Poels, K and Walrave, M (2015) ‘Older and Wiser? Facebook Use, Privacy Concern, and Privacy Protection in the Life Stages of Emerging, Young, and Middle Adulthood’.  Social Media and Society. 1 (2).

Westin, A. F. (1991). Harris- Equifax Consumer Privacy Survey 1991. Atlanta, Georgia: Equifax, Inc. Harris Louis and Associates.


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