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Teens not the only ones to overshare on Facebook: study

Two shocked teenage girls looking at laptop computer

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Tweens and teens are often warned about not sharing too much personal information online, but a new study suggests grown-ups aren't much different than adolescents in protecting their privacy.

Facebook users were the focus of the work by a psychology professor and two PhD candidates at the University of Guelph, who compared the habits of a youthful group - ages nine to 18 - to a more seasoned population of non-students, ranging from 19 to 71.

"There's this belief that somehow younger people, especially teenagers, are somewhat foolish when it comes to privacy and social media, and that as people get more mature, older, that they become more careful and more protective of their privacy," Prof. Serge Desmarais said in an interview.

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"As the paper revealed, teenagers and their parents or people who are somewhat older are certainly not that different when it comes to protecting their privacy.

"So younger people are not as foolish as we think, or parents are more foolish than we think - either way."

The findings will be published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, and have already appeared online.

The researchers recruited people to participate in their online survey from among visitors to the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto.

The younger demographic comprised 288 Facebook users, including 112 boys, 171 girls and five participants who didn't provide their gender. The older group consisted of 285 Facebook users, including 118 men, 165 women and two people who didn't give their gender.

Responses showed that 35.4 per cent of the young people and 29 per cent of the adults were at least somewhat likely to disclose personal information on Facebook.

The researchers' finding that young people reveal more is partly attributed to the fact that they spent significantly more time on Facebook each day.

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On the flip side, 43 per cent of the young people and 59 per cent of the adults said they were "somewhat likely" to "very likely" to not share personal information.

Co-author Emily Christofides said the respondents' general likelihood of disclosing information on Facebook was compared to their answers to 13 specific questions about the kinds of information they shared - for example, relationship status, religion and interests.

"We found that was highly correlated with how likely they said they were to disclose," she said.

Ms. Christofides said the research team was surprised to find that adolescents were more aware of the consequences of disclosing information.

She said that if popularity was important to an individual, the person was more likely to share information.

"While we found no differences in the number of friends or the importance of popularity between adolescents and adults, teens were more likely to engage in behaviours that we have termed 'friend collecting' - behaviours such as adding people they do not like or do not know personally," the authors wrote.

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Ms. Christofides and fellow student Amy Muise said there can be negative consequences for relationships and employment when Facebook users disclose something that might not be seen in the best light.

"A good percentage of employers now say that they're checking Facebook before they hire people," Ms. Muise said. "You might not get a job and it might be because of something you had on Facebook, and they're likely never going to tell you that."

Previous research has indicated there can be feelings of jealousy or suspicions of infidelity if a romantic partner posts photos of someone unknown, she added.

"You should treat anything that you post on Facebook like you're posting on the front page of a newspaper, so you want to be comfortable that you'd be OK with your employer seeing that, your family member seeing that, friends, children," she advised.

"Once something's posted online even if it's deleted later, it's never really gone and can be shared very quickly and easily with a lot of people."

Facebook users should set their privacy settings to protect themselves, and also think carefully about the types of information they're posting, she recommended.

"So I think even though Facebook's privacy settings can be quite complicated, a lot of that information is included online, and you can set your Facebook in a number of ways to help make yourself more protected from your information being shared more widely."

The work was supported by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

"This will help them in terms of understanding what factors lead people to share more or less, and some beginning ideas on how to inform people about protecting their privacy," Ms. Christofides said.

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