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Reuters file
71 percent of those ages 18 to 29 say they "have changed the (default) privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online," according to a new study.
updated 5/26/2010 12:06:40 PM ET 2010-05-26T16:06:40

More adults — especially young adults between the ages of 18 and 29 — are actively monitoring what is being said and posted about themselves online and taking steps to protect their privacy, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

"Contrary to common assumptions, young adults are, in many ways, the most active managers of their online reputations," said Mary Madden, Pew senior research specialist and lead author of the report, "Reputation Management and Social Media."

Younger adults are also "more likely than older adults to limit the information they share online, especially on social networking sites," such as Facebook. "Those who know more, worry more," she said.

And there's a lot to know and to worry about: comments or photos posted on Facebook or MySpace; messages on microblogging site Twitter, which is publicly searchable; work-related thoughts shared on LinkedIn; personal reflections shared on dating websites.

"Fourteen percent of online daters say they have had negative experiences because of embarrassing or inaccurate information posted online, compared with just 4 percent of those who do not use online dating sites,” Madden said.

Searching for ourselves
Pew last looked at online reputation management in 2006, when social networking was in its infancy. At that time, more than 47 percent of adult Internet users said they used a Web search engine to see what information about themselves was online. Now, 57 percent say they have done so.

Pew's findings are based on a survey of 2,253 adults 18 and older during last August and September, well before firestorms intensified over Facebook's privacy policies and Google's Buzz social networking program launched.

Awareness and concern about privacy is high especially among younger users of social networking sites, with 71 percent of those ages 18 to 29 saying they "have changed the (default) privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online," compared to 62 percent of those ages 30 to 49, and 55 percent of those ages 50 to 64, Pew found.

"Compared with older users, young adults are not only the most attentive to customizing their privacy settings and limiting what they share via their profiles, but they are also generally less trusting of the sites that host their content,” the Pew report said.

"When asked how much of the time they think they can trust social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn,” 28 percent of users ages 18 to 29 said "never." in contrast, "a smaller segment of older users express such cautious views” — 19 percent of users ages 30 to 49, while 14 percent of those ages 50 to 64 say they "never trust the sites.”

Deleting others' comments
The differences may be because "young adults' use of social media takes place during a very unique time of life, when the social motivations for sharing information among peers is very strong, and there is a lot of attention paid to self-presentation,” Madden said.

"Adults over the age of 50 are not as active in sharing information on social networking sites and other spaces online, so there may be an assumption that there's not much content available that's connected to their names online," she said.

"However, even if you're not a social media user yourself, that doesn't mean you don't have a presence on those networks. Photos, videos and comments about you may circulate with or without your involvement.”

Indeed, 47 percent of social networking site users ages 18 to 29 say they have deleted comments others have made on their profiles, Pew said, compared with 29 percent of those ages 30 to 49, and 26 percent of those ages 50 to 64.

And 41 percent of users 18 to 29 said they have removed their names from photos that were "tagged,” or identified online, compared to 24 percent of users ages 30 to 49, and 18 percent of those ages 50 to 64.

A little more than half of all social networking site users say "they have restricted what they share by keeping some people from seeing certain updates," the Pew report said.

"This could include creating custom friend lists or blocking individual users from seeing certain updates or content,” the report said.

Wanting a sense of control
Many social networking site users "want to have a sense of control over their information, but they sometimes take the path of least resistance when making choices about how they manage their profiles and other content connected to their name online," whether that means "accepting the default privacy settings of an application or skipping over the fine print in a 'terms of service' agreement."

The survey results "do not indicate that Internet users care any less about retaining control over their personal information online," Pew said.

"Many people simply are not aware of what is actually available about them."

Among Pew's other findings:

  • 4 percent of online adults say they "have personally had bad experiences because embarrassing or inaccurate information was posted about them online, a number that is unchanged since 2006.”
  • 8 percent have asked that information about them that was posted online be removed, such as photos or videos. "The vast majority (82 percent) say they are usually successful at getting that content taken down.”
  • More than half of social networking users — 56 percent — have "unfriended” others in their network.
  • 41 percent of social networking site users say they filter updates posted by some of their friends. "While some friends get deleted from others' networks, others are simply tuned out," the report said. "Features such as the 'Hide; function on Facebook facilitate this kind of filtering, essentially omitting certain friends' updates from a user's News Feed."
  • 32 percent of college graduates say they work for companies that have "rules about how they present themselves on the Internet, compared with just 18 percent of high school grads."
  • 44 percent of employed Internet users "now say that details about whom they work for are posted online, up from 35 percent in 2006."
  • One in three Internet users say their birth date is available online for others to see. "While including a birth date has become a standard feature on many social networking profiles, this can also be a critical piece of information used by identity thieves,” Pew said.
  • One in 10 Internet users "now say that video of them is available on the Internet for others to see, which represents a five-fold increase since 2006.”
  • 33 percent of Internet users say they worry about how much information is available about them online, down from 40 percent in 2006.
  • 26 percent of Internet users have searched for information about co-workers, professional colleagues or business competitors online.
  • 19 percent say they have searched online for information about neighbors and people in their community.

The findings, Pew said, show that "concern about and limitation of information do not always go hand in hand.

"Among Internet users who say they worry about how much information is available about them online, 45 percent say they do not take steps to limit the amount of information accessible to others online.”

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