Expert Commentary

Privacy protection strategies on Facebook

2013 study from the University of Maryland and the University of Western Ontario on young adults' social and institutional privacy strategies on Facebook.


Users of social networking sites are learning to strike a balance between personal privacy and public sharing, recent studies suggest.  The extent to which personal attributes can be gleaned from such sites can still be unsettling, though; a 2012 Pew study found that awareness of privacy issues on sites such as Facebook have risen to the point where most users only allow friends to see their profiles. At the same time, other studies have shown that site privacy settings may confer a false sense of security and that some types of shared information is monitored more closely than others.

Most of this research focuses on how a user manages information with a “social” or friend-centric audience in mind. However, social media sites are also becoming an increasingly valuable data source for their parent firms, marketers and even social psychologists. Are users mindful of these possible uses of their personal information as they manage their privacy settings?

A 2013 study from the University of Maryland and the University of Western Ontario published in Information, Communication and Society, “Privacy Protection Strategies on Facebook,” investigates the extent to which young adults are concerned about social privacy or institutional privacy, and how this concern is reflected in Facebook privacy strategies. Researchers recruited 77 university students, approximately 70% of whom were female, to complete surveys on their social media practices; 21 other participants walked an interviewer through their Facebook profile. The researchers also collected information on the frequency of Facebook use, privacy settings use, information visibility and friending practices.

Key study findings included:

  • Students were primarily concerned about social privacy issues, expressed by deleting identifying tags on images, friending only people they know or know of, utilizing the private messaging feature and limiting information shared on their public profile. However, only one of the interview participants expressed concern about how information online could be used by Facebook. “Participants in the study showed much greater concern about controlling access to their data than about how institutions may use or misuse their personal information.”
  • Approximately 15% of participants left their privacy setting at the default, “all networks and all friends.” Slightly over 70% chose “friends only” or “some networks and all friends” options, and 8% allowed access by the entire Facebook network.
  • Nearly 80% of participants regulated access to tagged photos, 77% restricted access to their Wall, and 71% limited access to their news feed. The researchers found that “some students fear that despite restricting their photo visibility to ‘only friends,’ they believe that it may [still] be possible for unwanted audiences to access their information from within the site.”
  • While privacy concerns were reflected in limiting profile information, it had no effect on limiting profile or information visibility. “Students were more likely to exclude personal information … to use privacy email messages to restrict access to content, and to alter the default privacy settings, than they were to use fake or inaccurate information or to block contacts.” False information in a profile was generally used to “appear comical,” not as a way to enhance one’s privacy.
  • Participants were often unaware or had forgotten what information they had disclosed and what privacy settings they had enacted.
  • Over 80% of participants were classified as heavy Facebook users (logging on several times a day and spending an average of 3 hours and 48 hours a week on the site). The average participant had 402 Facebook friends, with the majority of these considered to be acquaintances rather than close friends.

The researchers conclude that “more work needs to be done to increase the transparency of what kinds of data are being collected, how these are being aggregated, and how they are utilized to target such features as ads, customized information, friendship recommendations, and posts.” They also note that since they collected their data, Facebook has changed its privacy settings, making it challenging for users to stay abreast of privacy amendments.

A related 2012 study from Carnegie Mellon University published in the Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality, “Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook,” examined over 5,000 Facebook users between 2005 and 2011. The researchers found that while site users are more mindful of privacy issues overall, they shared more personal data over time. “The amount and scope of personal information that Facebook users revealed privately to other connected profiles actually increased over time — and because of that, so did disclosures to ‘silent listeners’ on the network: Facebook itself, third-party apps, and (indirectly) advertisers.”

Tags: Facebook, privacy, youth

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