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Privacy, schmivacy — Gen Y will keep on sharing

The first generation of “digital natives,” those born after 1980 who are “always connected” and share information openly and unabashedly online, are unlikely to change that behavior as they age, according to a new study.

The first generation of "digital natives," those born after 1980 who are "always connected" and share information openly and unabashedly online, are unlikely to change that behavior as they age, according to a new study.

"Older and wiser" will not necessarily equate to zipping it on the Web. If anything, Gen Y, or "Millennials," as the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project dubs the group, "are leading society into a new world of personal disclosure and information-sharing."

Pew and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center in North Carolina surveyed 895 technology experts, including those in academia, research, business and government, to get their take on whether Millennials' online openness will diminish as they age, "form families, and move up the economic ladder." More than two-thirds of respondents said they don’t believe that will happen.

"Sharing is not 'the new black,' it is the new normal," said Matt Gallivan, a senior research analyst for NPR, and one of those surveyed.

"There are too many benefits to living with a certain degree of openness for digital natives to 'grow out of it.' Job opportunities, new personal connections, professional collaboration, learning from others' experiences … are all very powerful benefits to engaging openly with others online, and this is something that Gen Y understands intuitively."

Those who disagreed said that Millennials will "not have as much time in the future to devote to popular activities such as frequently posting to the world at large on YouTube, Twitter or Facebook about the nitty-gritty details of their lives," Pew said.

And some Millennials are increasingly wary of what long-term damage could be caused by silly party photos or hastily spewed rants online.

Lee Rainie, Pew Internet director, said "Some experts also expressed hope that society will be more forgiving of those whose youthful mistakes are on display in social media such as Facebook picture albums or YouTube videos."

Howard Rheingold, who wrote "The Virtual Community" in 1993 — before most really understood what the phrase meant — said college students in his Stanford University and UC Berkeley classes "are increasingly concerned about Facebook privacy, the amount of time they spend online and the way they share information.

"In general, I think Gen Y will continue to be more open about a great deal of information sharing, but I can see that at least some of them are growing concerned," he told Pew.

"As people age, that which they have to share becomes more tame," Stuart Schechter, formerly of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory and now a researcher for Microsoft Research, said in the study.

"Thus, while the digital natives may be sharing less embarrassing things about themselves, they’ll be sharing things that are likely to embarrass their kids, who in middle school will discover that every step of their potty training is has been blogged, with photographs, for their friends to see."

And with the speed of change — exponential when it comes to technology and the Internet —some even see a time where Millennials will be nostalgic over "some of the early social media experiences (‘Whatever happened to MySpace? Remember how cool it was?’)” Gary Arlen, founder of The Internet Alliance, said in the survey.

"The practices will be ingrained in future behaviors, in much the same way that the freedom of choice that we got from VHS two decades ago has migrated to on-demand viewing via video on demand and digital video recorders," he said. "Such behavior will be part of life. It's what we expect— in an updated version."

Pew and Elon University have been studying Millennials since 2006, calling the group "history's first 'always connected' generation."  

"Steeped in digital technology and social media, they treat their multitasking handheld gadgets almost like a body part — for better and worse," Pew and Elon said in a recent report, "Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next."