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Shocker: Teens Actually Do Care About Privacy

Bob Sullivan

Kids frequently avoid or uninstall mobile phone apps they feel invade their privacy, and a majority of young women have disabled location tracking features out of privacy concerns, according to a new survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The study found that teenage girls are nearly twice as likely as boys (59 percent to 37 percent) to say they’d disabled an app’s location features. It also found that half of all teens have avoided apps due to privacy concerns, and one-quarter had uninstalled an app over such concerns.

“Kids do care about privacy, just not the same way that (adults) do,” said Mary Madden, head researcher for the Pew study. “We see in all kinds of different research we’ve done, this assumption that (only) older adults care and are more careful about privacy is simply not true. It really depends very much on the specific context.”

One context where privacy seems to matter a lot to teenage girls: mobile apps that tell the world where they are.

“That does fall in line with a broader concern that relates to (girls’) sense of protecting their physical safety,” Madden said.  “There’s been a lot of messaging around stranger danger on the Net that is very much targeted towards girls.”

But more than one-third of boys also said they’d disabled location broadcasting. In addition to the danger factor, this might also indicate a more general willingness to tinker with settings among the younger crowd, Madden said.

“They aren’t as fearful as older users, who worry, ‘If I touch this, I’m going to mess something up.’ To turn off location tracking, you have to be willing to dig in and see what’s going on,” she said. “Teens are very sophisticated in managing their social privacy. In fact, that’s the work of being a teenager.”  In fact, kids often fight with parents over “privacy,” so their willingness to fine-tune apps shouldn’t be a surprise.

The Privacy Paradox?

Privacy researcher Larry Ponemon of the Ponemon Institute said he was surprised that 51 percent of kids would avoid privacy-invading apps, however. In a similar study his firm conducted earlier this year, 54 percent of respondents 18-24 years old said they would not download any “privacy-diminishing” app onto their phone, but manual inspection showed a true download rate of 81 percent.

“There appears to be a huge discrepancy between what people do versus what they say they do,” Ponemon said.

It’s unclear whether the discrepancy is the result of consumers not understanding how their apps work, or simply acting out the so-called privacy paradox, of saying one thing but doing another on privacy issues.

Madden said Pew’s research took this paradox into account, and many questions in the survey were specific enough to elicit accurate responses. She also said teens seem particularly good at following through on privacy-promoting behavior. Even though teens are not particularly concerned about government or advertising companies invading their privacy, they are extremely concerned about the social cost of oversharing online.

“For teens it’s not top of mind to think about abstract notions of privacy,” she said. “Teens are actually more concerned about, ‘Can I do the things I want to do without having information out there embarrassing me?’”

Red Tape Wrestling Tips

  • Know your apps. Apps do have to declare what location information they use. While it’s buried in fine print, it’s worth reviewing. Pay special attention after an app update. Sometimes, developers sneak in additional permissions with updates, so watch for that. If you aren’t sure why an app needs your location information, or its implementation feels sneaky to you, uninstall it. App developers should learn to be incredibly explicit about how they use this data, or made to face the consequences.
  • Icons can light the way. Some smartphones light up an icon to show location information is being transmitted. That’s helpful for uncovering apps that surprisingly share your information.
  • Not all or nothing.  There are legitimate uses for sharing mobile phone location data. Some apps can’t really function well without location data, such as maps, and that’s fine. In some cases, you might decide that the benefit outweighs the cost — you like seeing movie times near you, or weather reports without needing to update your ZIP code. The key is making conscious decisions that can be easily revised.
  • For parents. If you give your kids a cellphone, be sure they understand that plenty of apps — even innocuous apps, such as photo-sharing tools — will tell the world where they are, and that can be dangerous. Tell them about websites like PleaseRobMe or apps like Creepy, designed to scare people by revealing how a criminal can use such data against your child. That can serve as a good reality check.

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