Surveys shed light on online behaviour by youth

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There is some perception among teachers, parents and privacy advocates that online users of social networks – particularly young users – may not be taking the steps necessary to protect their personal information and their online identity. Two recent studies have shed some light, and some details, on the online behaviour of pre-teens and teens online.

In August, the U.S. National School Boards Association released Creating & Connecting//Research and Guidelines on Online Social – and Educational – Networking, a study summarizing the results of three surveys with 1,277 nine to 17 year-old students. (news release, .pdf of the report)

The study confirmed that online social networking forms a significant part of the life of this group of young Americans.

A smaller group of students, which the study dubs “noncomformists,” are heavy users of online social networking sites. They are more likely to upload video, audio and photo material, create and share characters, and post messages than the average user.

In fact, these “nonconformists” seem to be the early adopters, with some influence over the choices and behaviour of their peers.

As privacy advocates, we continue to believe that every participant in an online social network should keep track of the choices they make to reveal personal information like their name, their age, their hometown or school and other details.

The behaviour of these “nonconformists” is slightly worrying:

“About one in five (22 percent) of all students surveyed and about one in three teens (31 percent), are nonconformists, students who report breaking one or more online safety or behavior rules, such as using inappropriate language, posting inappropriate pictures, sharing personal information with strangers or pretending to be someone they are not.”

While some of these habits have been commonplace among online users for many years, the increasingly easy access to broadband and mobile tools has made it easier for pre-teens and teens to step up their online activities.

Still, the National School Boards Association study makes the point – quite bluntly – that their research has revealed:

“fewer recent or current problems, such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying and unwelcome personal encounters, than school fears and policies seem to imply.”

Their study also notes that

“the vast majority of students … seem to be living by the online safety behaviours they learn at home and school.”

Slightly different data has emerged from a smaller study conducted in Hong Kong. (news release)

In July, the Hong Kong Office of the Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data surveyed 500 youth between 12 and 24 years old. Their study found that:

“…more than half of the respondents (55.3%) who wrote blogs or personal webpages had disclosed their personal data in blogs or personal webpages. Although 62% of them worried that disclosure of personal data on the Internet would bring about privacy issues, only 48% had adopted online security measures to safeguard their personal data.”

The general observation to be made from this disparate data (with an admittedly small sample in both cases) is that young users of online social networks appear to be aware of the need to protect their personal data and personal security, but may not be taking enough steps to guarantee this.

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