Apodaca: Studies uncover youths' views on privacy

Are young people really less concerned about privacy than the rest of us?

There's been a lot of discussion about that question in this digital age of ours, but the debate has intensified in recent weeks thanks to revelations by a renegade former U.S. intelligence worker that the government has been collecting massive amounts of digital data on pretty much everyone.

The assumption in some quarters seems to be that today's youths, accustomed as they are to sharing the most intimate details about themselves on social media sites, would collectively shrug at the disclosure by the world's most infamous asylum seeker, Edward Snowden. But just as quickly, others posed themselves as contrarians, arguing that just because younger folks are more comfortable with technology doesn't mean they're any less concerned about their privacy.

Which view is correct depends on who you're listening to.

A few years back a team of researchers from Harvard, UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania concluded from their studies that young people have concerns about privacy similar to those of older Americans. One academic compared the personal information revealed by youths in social networking to that shared by adults using online dating sites.

The main difference between the age groups, the researchers said, was that younger people tended to think the rules guarding their privacy were stricter than they really are. They were also more likely to see the benefits of sharing information.

Another study by USC's Annenberg Center for the Digital Future earlier this year had similar findings but was used to justify a somewhat different slant. Researchers there claimed to identify a "Millennial rift" between 18- to-24-year-olds and the 35s and above when it came to views about electronic media privacy.

"Online privacy is dead," declared the center's director. "Millennials understand that, while older users have not adapted."

The survey did find that younger people were very nearly as reluctant to give others access to their personal data and online behavior as their older counterparts. Even so, they were reportedly more enthusiastic about sharing such information and were more likely to give others access as long as there were perceived benefits to doing so.

I decided to conduct my own study into the matter.

On a recent evening a group of eight teenage boys — my son and his friends, all college-bound products of a Newport Beach upbringing — gathered at my house for a fantasy football league draft. I used the opportunity to ask these young Millennials a few questions regarding their views on the Snowden affair and online privacy.

I was politely informed that I had about 15 minutes to ask my questions before the draft got underway.

Let me acknowledge that mine was a highly unscientific survey conducted under less than ideal conditions, given that the young men were distracted by thoughts of their potential draft picks. Nonetheless, for a few minutes I managed to pick the brains of my little focus group.

First off, three of the guys didn't immediately recognize Snowden's name until I explained that he was the one who tipped the world off to the federal government's data-collecting activities.

"Dude, don't you see the news?" one of the young men chided, to which his friend replied defensively, "I watch ESPN."

The group was split evenly over the question of whether Snowden did the right thing in disclosing the classified government program, while five believed that he should turn himself in to U.S. authorities.

I asked the kids to rate how surprised they were to learn that the government was collecting this information, using a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not at all surprised and 10 representing totally shocked. Their responses leaned heavily toward the lower numbers.

Then they used a similar scale to rate their level of concern over the data-collecting activities. The short answer for the group: not very to sort of concerned.

Only half responded that they trusted the government not to misuse the data it collects. Even so, seven of the eight believed that the program would keep us safer by helping uncover terrorist plots.

"If it even stops one bomb or anything it's worth it," one young man commented.

Just one in the group dissented from the general view that there was no need for them to be more careful about sharing personal information online.

And when I asked them to rate their level of expectation about whether their online activities were private, only two reported having a low expectation of such privacy. One of the young men needed some clarification: "Do you mean private from the government or our parents?" he asked.

"I'm an 18-year-old kid. I'm not trying to destroy the world," he said. "I just don't want my parents to know what I did last night."

A few minutes later I lost them to the fantasy draft. But if I gained any insight from my amateur pulse-taking of American youth, it's that they pretty much display similar measures of skepticism versus naiveté regarding their online activities as us old folks.

But if they think Mom and Dad won't find out what they did last night, they've got another thing coming.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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