Attitudes of young people to privacy

Australian research

67.11 There is limited Australian research on the attitudes of young people to privacy. An online survey regarding Australian privacy legislation was conducted in 2007 by the United Nations Youth Association in South Australia, Flinders Law Students’ Association and the Adelaide University Law Students’ Society.[9] Of the 332 respondents, 21.9% were aged 26 or over, 67.6% were aged 18–25, 9.6% were aged 15–17, and 0.6% (2 respondents) were under the age of 15. The vast majority of respondents were resident in South Australia, with 73% living in Adelaide.

67.12 This survey provides a snapshot of the attitudes of young people to privacy, particularly those of tertiary students in South Australia. The survey revealed that:

  • 95.5% of respondents considered privacy to be a human right, and 92.5% described it as being important or very important;

  • the handling of personal information by businesses and other individuals caused respondents the most concern. The handling of personal information by government departments and intelligence organisations caused respondents less concern, and the handling of personal information by medical and health service providers caused respondents the least concern;

  • 77.6% of respondents were of the view that technology imposes a significant or strong threat to privacy, and 40.6% indicated that photographs or video footage of them had been posted on the internet without their permission;

  • while some 220 respondents indicated they thought their privacy had been infringed at some point in time, only four had made a formal complaint to a privacy commissioner or ombudsman;

  • 59.5% of respondents suggested that at 16–17 years of age most young people have the capacity to make decisions about their personal information; 22.2% indicated this occurred at 14–15 years of age, and 2.7% indicated that it occurred at 12–13 years of age; and

  • while 16.8% of respondents indicated that young people under the age of 18 should not be able to seek medical treatment without the knowledge and consent of their parents or guardians, most of the respondents in this category were over the age of 25.

67.13 A number of general surveys on attitudes to privacy provide additional information on how the 18–24 age group perceive privacy.

67.14 The Office of the Privacy Commissioner (OPC) has conducted four surveys of community attitudes to privacy.[10] The surveys were quantitative in nature and involved telephone interviews with respondents representative of the adult population nationwide.[11] The 2001, 2004 and 2007 surveys separate data by age groups.[12] Some of the key points from the 2007 survey are set out below.

  • Young people aged 18–24 are less likely than the rest of the adult population to be aware of the existence of federal privacy laws—the percentage of this age group that are aware of federal privacy laws in 2007 (50%) remained about the same as the 2004 figure of 48%, while the average figure for the whole adult population rose from 60% in 2004 to 69% in 2007.[13]

  • Young people are less likely than the rest of the adult population to be aware of the existence of the federal Privacy Commissioner.[14]

  • Awareness of the existence of the federal Privacy Commissioner increases with age.[15]

  • Concern about providing others with personal financial information increased with age.[16]

  • Younger Australians are most concerned about providing others with their home telephone number or home address.[17]

  • Young people are much more likely to provide personal information in order to receive a discount or to win a prize. The percentages of people willing to provide personal information for these purposes dropped steadily through the age groups. For example, 39% of those aged 18–24 indicated that they would provide personal information to obtain a discount (as opposed to 54% in 2004). Only 15% of those aged 50 and over indicated that they would provide personal information for this purpose.[18]

  • There are no significant differences in the attitudes of members of different age groups to the question of whether the inclusion of health records on a database should be voluntary. This differs from the position in 2004 when younger people were more likely than people in older age groups to consider that inclusion should be voluntary. The overall percentage supporting voluntary inclusion was 76% in 2007, up from 64% in 2004.[19]

  • Young people are much more likely to have provided false information when completing online forms in order to protect their privacy, with 58% of those aged 18–24 admitting to this practice, in comparison to only 8% of those aged 50 and over.[20]

67.15 A 2005 survey of the use of the internet and some other forms of technology by Australian children and young people is also of interest.[21] The survey found that, while Australian children are not using the internet as frequently as children in Hong Kong or the United Kingdom, the frequency of use has increased. Thirty seven per cent of Australian children with a home internet connection log on daily, and a further 34% log on at least two or three times a week. The survey also showed that frequency of use increased with age; and that girls and older children were more likely to use the internet as a communication resource (for email and instant messaging) than boys and younger children, who were more focused on access for entertainment purposes (games, websites, music).

67.16 This survey indicates that large numbers of Australian children and young people are making regular use of online technology, in some cases with limited or no supervision. This proposition is supported by a more recent 2006 survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics of children’s participation in cultural and leisure activities. This survey reveals that 65% of children aged 5–14 years use the internet, with 73% of these children using it more than once a week.[22]

Overseas research

67.17 In 2005, the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups and the Hong Kong Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data conducted a survey of the attitudes of people aged 15–29 to privacy.[23] Although it was a limited survey, with a particular emphasis on online transactions, the results indicate that young people in Hong Kong appear to have similar attitudes to privacy as young people in Australia—that is, they have concerns about certain privacy issues, but also consider certain types of initiatives, such as a patient medical records databases, to be worthwhile.

67.18 Of particular interest in the survey were two questions regarding the taking of photographs by strangers. Fourteen per cent of respondents admitted to having taken a photograph of a stranger without first asking permission; and 21% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the suggestion that taking a photograph of a person in a public place without permission is an invasion of personal data privacy rights.[24] There was no age breakdown of responses to these questions to see if responses differed according to the ages of the respondents

67.19 In October 2007, research conducted for the United Kingdom Information Commissioner’s Office on privacy issues in the online environment was completed. The research examined the online activities of 2,000 United Kingdom internet users aged 14–21.[25] The research revealed that:

  • 60% of respondents had posted their date of birth, and 59% had posted their personal email address, on a social networking website, chatroom or blog. Boys appeared to be slightly more cautious than girls about posting personal information. Older respondents were less cautious than those aged 14–17;

  • 52% of respondents indicated that they considered privacy to be important, but that they liked to meet new people so tended to leave some of their profile public. Only 7% indicated that privacy was not important at all and that they left their profile completely open;

  • 58% of respondents indicated they had never thought that what they put online now might still be there in five, 10 or 20 years time; and

  • 52% indicated they usually skim read and possess a rough understanding of website privacy policies, while 32% indicated they had never read an online privacy policy and 2% indicated they did not know what a privacy policy was.

67.20 A study in the United States of ‘the lives of young Americans as they make the transition to adulthood’ also addressed the privacy of young people.[26] In April 2006, 1021 adults aged 18–24 were surveyed for the study. Respondents to the survey generally valued privacy, but considered it to be of equal value to the ease and convenience presented by the internet.[27] Seventy-eight per cent indicated that they had a personal website, webpage or blog and regularly participated in online communities such as MySpace or Facebook. Those who did not belong to online communities were more likely to place a higher value on privacy than convenience.

67.21 The research suggests that members of Generation Y balance their concern about privacy and their desire for convenience by self-censoring the types of personal information they make available online. Nevertheless, members of older generations may be shocked at the level of detail and the types of information young people feel comfortable about sharing. For example, 16% post their home address and 78% post photographs (often unflattering or ‘sexy’ photographs) online. Young people in the online environment appear to be more concerned about identity theft and receiving spam than they are about stalking and harassment (although the latter worries their parents).

67.22 In 2006, a more focused survey of teenagers aged 12–17, and their parents, was conducted in the United States to examine how teenagers manage their online identities and personal information when using online social networks.[28] Some of the key findings of this survey were that:

  • 93% of American teenagers use the internet (an increase from 87% in 2004), and 55% of them have online profiles;

  • 66% of the teenagers with online profiles limit access to the profile in some way;

  • 82% of teenagers with online profiles include their first name in the profile, and 79% include photographs of themselves. Varying percentages include information such as the name of their city or town (61%); the name of their school (49%); their email address (29%); their last name (29%); and their mobile phone number (2%);

  • Boys are more likely than girls to post false information, sometimes for reasons of privacy, but also at times to be playful or silly; and older teens are more likely than younger teens to disclose more personal information;

  • 41% of teenagers using the internet believe their online activity is monitored by their parents (an increase from 33% in 2004), while 65% of parents reported monitoring their teenager’s online activity.

67.23 One of the key questions the survey sought to answer was whether today’s teenagers were less concerned about their privacy because the internet gives them so many opportunities to socialise and share information. The researchers found that

there was a wide range of views among teens about privacy and disclosure of personal information. Whether in an online or offline context, teenagers do not fall neatly into clear-cut groups when it comes to their willingness to disclose information or the way they restrict access to the information that they do share. For most teens, decisions about privacy and disclosure depend on the nature of the encounter and their own personal circumstances. Teen decisions about whether to disclose or not involve questions like these: Do you live in a small town or big city? How did you create your network of online ‘friends’? How old are you? Are you male or female? Do your parents have lots of rules about internet use? Do your parents view your profile? All these questions and more inform the decisions that teens make about how they present themselves online. Many, but not all, teens are aware of the risks of putting information online in a public and durable environment. Many, but certainly not all, teens make thoughtful choices about what to share in what context.[29]

67.24 In a United States poll, the government’s policy of eavesdropping on suspected terrorists’ telephone calls and emails without a warrant was considered wrong by 56% of 18–29 year olds (compared to 53% of 50–64 year olds who said it was the right thing to do).[30] Some of the young people criticising the government surveillance share intimate details in the online environment—an apparent contradiction. The contradiction, however, appears to be explained by young people’s attitudes to control of the flow of personal information. According to one young adult, for example, ‘what I get concerned about is when that control gets compromised without my consent’.[31]

[9] The survey methodology and results were provided to the ALRC as a submission to this Inquiry: United Nations Youth Association, Flinders University Students’ Association and Adelaide University Law Students’ Society, Submission PR 557, 7 January 2007. The results have not as yet been published elsewhere.

[10] Wallis Consulting Group, Community Attitudes Towards Privacy 2007 [prepared for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner] (2007); Roy Morgan Research, Community Attitudes Towards Privacy 2004 [prepared for Office of the Privacy Commissioner] (2004); Roy Morgan Research, Privacy and the Community [prepared for Office of the Federal Privacy Commissioner] (2001). A similar survey was conducted by Roy Morgan Research in 1999.

[11] While Roy Morgan Research undertook some qualitative research as part of the 2001 survey, there was no report on the outcome of that research.

[12] The 2007 survey deliberately over-sampled the 18–24 age group to ensure that the responses of younger Australians could be compared to those aged 25 and over: Wallis Consulting Group, Community Attitudes Towards Privacy 2007 [prepared for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner] (2007), 3.

[13] Ibid, 6.

[14] Ibid, 8.

[15] Ibid, 8.

[16] Ibid, 24.

[17] Ibid, 24.

[18] Ibid, 31–32.

[19] Ibid, 45.

[20] Ibid, 64.

[21] Netratings Australia Pty Ltd, kidsonline@home: Internet Use in Australian Homes [prepared for Australian Broadcasting Authority and NetAlert Limited] (2005).

[22] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities, Australia, Apr 2006, 4901.0 (2006).

[23] Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, 2005 Survey of Youth Attitudes and Perceptions Towards Personal Data Privacy (2005).

[24] Ibid, 2.

[25] Dubit Research, Data Protection—Topline Report [commissioned by United Kingdom Information Commissioner’s Office] (2007).

[26] Greenburg Quinlan Rosner and Polimetrix, Youth Monitor: Coming of Age in America (2005), 1. See in particular Part IV—The MySpace Generation (2006).

[27] Greenburg Quinlan Rosner and Polimetrix, Youth Monitor: Coming of Age in America Part IV—The MySpace Generation (2006), 1912.

[28] A Lenhart and M Madden, Teens, Privacy & Online Social Networks (2007) Pew Internet & American Life Project.

[29] Ibid, iv.

[30] J Berton, ‘The Age of Privacy: Gen Y Not Shy Sharing Online—But Worries About Spying’, San Francisco Chronicle (online), 20 May 2006, <>.

[31] Ibid.