Generation Gap: Who's Oversharing Online?


I am 5'9" and have medium-length blond hair. I like to play sports and I graduated from the University of Missouri. My 80-year-old grandfather would be appalled that I just shared so much information with complete strangers. Chances are my mother would be too.

But hey, I didn’t share anything you wouldn’t be able to find online. Here’s the kicker: I am not even on Facebook (NYSE:FB).

The ever-growing realm of social media has created generation gaps in how people view privacy online. But some research shows that it’s the younger and more web-savvy crowd that is actually taking action to manage accounts.

“Privacy was less of concern to older generations when they were growing up -- there was nothing rushing to their face showing that people they didn’t know knew everything about them,” says Tim Rohrbaugh, vice president of Information Security at Intersections, an identity risk management service. “Nowadays, it can be downright eerie what people we’ve never met know about us.”

In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg declared privacy no longer a social norm.

"People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time,” Zuckerberg, who started the site out of his Harvard dorm room, said at the Crunchie awards in San Francisco.

Here’s the proof: If you don’t change your settings to limit the visibility of past posts on Facebook, you are allowing friends of friends to see your information -- an average of 150,000 people, according to Kristina Kennedy, vice president of marketing for online privacy company Abine.

It’s no surprise that experts say users under age 30 tend to share more online than their older counterparts -- but privacy concerns span all ages.

“Regardless of the generation, everyone knows that their information is out there,” says Kennedy. “But what they don’t know is what to do about it and how to protect themselves.”

Kennedy adds that while the younger generation is more tech savvy and tends to set stronger privacy settings than older social networkers, they “have a deeper gap in understanding and internalizing how accessible their information is and how it is being used.”

With that said, Rohrbaugh points out that while older users might not post as frequently on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, they are sharing information about their children that could put their offspring at risk for identity theft. “Parents are sharing their children’s information through pictures and posts; their kids are going to have a hard time getting away from that information as they get older and create a sense of privacy. This puts them at a large risk of identity theft.”

According to a March report from Pew Internet, a project of the Pew Research Center, social network users are becoming more active in managing their accounts and reducing what they share, with 63% of respondents reporting they have deleted people from their “friends” lists, an increase from 56% in 2009. The report also found that 44% have deleted comments made on their profiles, and 37% have removed their identification from photos.

New vs. Old

The reason for joining social networks varies among generations. According to a 2009 study by Anderson Analytics, sizable percentages of every age group were looking to keep in touch with friends, have fun or stay in contact with family. Users between 15-29 were most likely to be interested in fun and friends, while family contact appealed more to older social networkers.

A survey by AARP and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) earlier this year showed 83% of those polled across all age groups found that being online improved the quality and quantity of their interactions with their families.

Providing updates on what’s going on in our lives, like what we had for dinner last night and pictures from our latest vacation, has become standard. The number of Facebook users has swelled to nearly 900 million users worldwide and is looking to hit one billion in August. Twitter claims to have 100 million active users.

Kennedy points out that Facebook, which valued itself at $104 billion in its initial public offering Thursday, has shifted its privacy settings to public over the years. “You have to remember 85% of how Facebook makes its money is from advertising, in order to grow and continue to hit expectations they will need to continue to get more value out of each user. If you are a user you are their product, you are nothing more than data that they can openly share and make searchable to make a profit,” she says.

Facebook might have a massive following, but trust lags. The site has a reputation for aggressively tracking users' behavior. E-Poll Market Research released a poll earlier this week that shows Facebook scored a '5' in terms of trustworthiness, compared with Google+’s '13' and a '7' for professional social-network LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD). The Menlo Park, Calif., based company settled charges from the Federal Trade Commission in November that it deceived consumers with its privacy claims.

This week, Twitter announced it added a “Do Not Track” feature of Mozilla’s Firefox to prevent websites from using cookies to track personal information and online movements.

In February, the White House pushed for stronger online privacy rules and proposed the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights to protect online users’ personal information from being tracked by websites without their knowledge and reins in what Internet companies can and can’t do with user data. The legislation, dubbed a “blueprint for privacy in the information age”, also requires online companies to make their privacy rules easier to understand and would create principles for companies that use personal data.

“Remember,” warns Rohrbaugh, “even if you delete something from a site, that site does not promise you that data actually goes anywhere. If you delete a post, no site has promised they will get rid of that post, and in some cases, it is technically impossible.”

He advises users of all ages never to post information that can be used to authenticate themselves on other sites like banks or e-commerce accounts. Never share your date of birth or any information that might be part of your security information when you forget an online password or site key.

“People aren’t going to be moving away from this, they will start sharing even more data in the future and pretty soon it will get to the point where everything you do, eat, see and say will be represented in a data set on one site.”