June 30, 2011 The young and old are happier to disclose personal information on the internet than the middle-aged, who show most interest in guarding their privacy, say researchers.
A study by Northumbria University academics has found that although computer users, in the age of Facebook and social networking, are increasingly willing to disclose sensitive personal information online, there is a U-shaped curve whereby the youngest and oldest members of society are less protective of their privacy than those who are middle-aged.
The study, entitled 'Who knows about me? An analysis of age-related disclosure preferences,' was conducted by Dr Linda Little, a Senior Lecturer within the Psychology Department; Professor Pam Briggs, Dean of the School of Life Sciences and co-director of the University's Psychology and Communication Technology (PaCT) Lab; and Lynne Coventry, Director of the (PaCT) Lab.
Their research is the first to examine differences in internet self-disclosure across age groups. For the study they examined more than 1,200 responses to a questionnaire measuring beliefs about information sensitivity and preferred levels of disclosure.
Participants, ranging in age from 18 to 65, were asked how comfortable they were in revealing their personal identity, health and lifestyle details, and financial information to a list of recipients, including health professionals, family, friends, work acquaintances, employer, private companies, and government agencies.
The results found that all participants were extremely willing to provide their personal identity data -- including name and date of birth -- to either health professionals or family and friends, with no differences between the age groups. However, participants aged 36 to 55 feel significantly less comfortable disclosing personal identity information to external companies in comparison to those under 35 and over 56. They also felt less comfortable disclosing details of their lifestyle to family and friends. And those over 56 felt least comfortable disclosing financial information to external companies in comparison to the under 35s.
The study is the first in a series of investigations that will explore tools that can capture individual differences in disclosure preferences. The aim is to provide new data and techniques in support of the development of individual privacy management tools.
Professor Pam Briggs said: "Our youngest and oldest have told us they're happier to share personal information than those in middle-age. One interpretation is that, as we enter middle-age, we become more aware of the implications of data sharing -- we understand the ways in which personal data has value. As we engage more fully with society we come to realise both the costs and benefits of disclosing data and also realise that we may have more to lose -- in terms of our status in society and specific monetary issues such as salary and insurance privileges. Later, as we move into our sixties and beyond, we regain a willingness to disclose information in all but the financial domain.
"Older adults feel that, aside from financial data, they have nothing to hide from the wider public therefore are more open online. Young adults have something to hide but arguably don't fully understand the wider implications of not hiding it!
"An interesting question for future research is whether or not young adults living in the internet age will continue to be open with regard to revealing personal information or if experience will change their behaviour."
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