Younger Generation Embracing A New View Of Privacy

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Would you give up your privacy for a free BlackBerry?

For four years, nearly 200 high school students in Dallas voluntarily allowed every text, email, and IM to be monitored. That these youth would sign off on such an invasion of privacy, especially in light of the content that was discovered within their communication, shows how much the next generation has changed their views on privacy.  Students allowed a team of researchers to capture all of their messaging, whether it was completely innocent or contained swearing, sexual references, and even drug deals, to the tune of 500,000 texts per month in exchange for a free BlackBerry!

With a $3.4 million grant from the NIH, Dr. Marion Underwood from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences at The University of Texas-Dallas embarked on the study with the goal of investigating the formation and maintenance of friendships as well as the dynamics of social and physical aggression. The students signed up in 2003 as 4th graders (with their parents consent) for the research, which at the time was named “The Friendship Project.”

For the next four years, students and parents would be interviewed and would self report about friendships, but valuable information about relationships and social interactions is lost when relying only on self reporting and interviewing. But in 2007, with the students one year away from entering high school, Dr. Underwood got a BlackBerry and saw the potential for tracking all of the students’ communication.

The study was then transformed into the more ominously titled “The BlackBerry Project.”

To continue to participate in the study, students agreed to have all of their electronic communication stored in a database. Those who did received a new BlackBerry complete with unlimited messaging, a data plan, and voice minutes. Every year through high school, the students have been given a new BlackBerry, and now as seniors, they have produced an enormous amount of data, a virtual window into the lives of teens. It’s clear that the researchers will be crunching on the data for a long time.

According to Forbes, Dr. Underwood indicated that concern over privacy among the students and their parents have been a non-issue (probably for different reasons).

Details about the success of the methodology in tracking teen communication were released in a recent paper published in Developmental Psychology. The paper describes a data set collected from a two-day window over homecoming, which included a football game and a dance.  For parents, some unsettling statistics from the 43,000 texts emerged (which comes out to 127 texts per participant per day). The data shows that students were rather open in their communication with nearly seven percent of texts contained either profane or sexual language. Contrary to other studies and perhaps popular opinion, girls texted to the same degree as boys. Not only did many students report using their BlackBerry always or most of the time, the overwhelming majority reported liking the BlackBerry a great deal.

Results from the study show that boys and girls text often and equally.

The teens were from homes in the Dallas area that spanned the entire income range. Additionally, their racial distribution (50% Caucasian, 23% African American, 15% Hispanic) is also approximately representative of the demographics of other major U.S. cities, such as Boston.

While it is shocking to some that kids would so willingly allow their most intimate conversations to be mined for data about everything from bullying to suicidal thoughts, it is easy to underestimate the value of a smartphone to today’s teens. The Pew Internet and American Life Project found that among 12 to 17 year olds, 75 percent own cell phones. Additionally, over 70 percent of teenagers text message regularly and have unlimited text messaging plans. A student without a cell phone is left out of the biggest social scene at school and lacks convenient access to the web, which is a global social club.

But beyond gadget envy, the willingness of the participants reflects a shift in the generational attitude about privacy.

A 2007 Zogby poll found a markedly different perspective about privacy between younger Americans and older age groups. For instance, according to the poll, around 1 out of 3 respondents aged 18-24 felt that their privacy would be violated if someone posted a picture of them in their swimsuit, whereas nearly 2 of 3 older respondents agreed. Furthermore, 1 out of every 5 of the younger people said that who they had dated was too private for the web, but over half of the older demographic said it would be an invasion of their privacy if someone accessed their dating profile without their consent. Altogether, the generational disparity disappeared in one area: 91 percent said that expectations about privacy have changed due to technology and the Internet.

In terms of privacy within the study, Dr. Underwood describes how she and the two others on the team with access to the database went to great lengths not to betray the confidence of the teens to their parents, even when some of the kids ran away from home or illegal activities were being discussed. And students were well aware that the “BlackBerry people” were watching but indicated trust that they wouldn’t be reported for what was texted.

This suggests that privacy was important to the students when it came to passing information to their parents, but not to complete strangers.

With the mound of data the team is sitting on, this is not the last we’ll hear from the Blackberry Project. Furthermore, researchers and companies around the world now have a winning game plan for the Free-Phone-For-Data strategy. While older generations and privacy advocates might be appalled at that prospect, the younger generations will likely think “What’s the big deal?” And that difference explains volumes about the underlying difference between how different generations use social media and the web in general.

It’s safe to say, privacy doesn’t mean the same thing to the younger generation as it does to the older and, just as many suspected, you can thank the web and technology for that.

[Media: APA, sxc]

[Sources: APA, Forbes, PR Newswire]

Discussion — 15 Responses

  • Neurosys May 12, 2012 on 3:58 pm

    Bribing children for fun and profit.
    Also conditioning them for a life of being data ore.
    What? I said ORE.

  • Knix May 13, 2012 on 4:11 am

    This experiment is axiomatically flawed. Essentially they’re saying that they gave these phones to the teenagers in exchange for being able to monitor all data outgoing and incoming, with the condition that they would do everything in their power to not give out that information to their parents or the authorities. In other words they are removing the possibility of repercussion for their actions. All the teenagers heard was free phone. The real danger of removal of privacy is the potentially enormous amount of leverage the surveilling party gains. None of these kids thought they would go to prison for trafficking narcotics because the police read the text about a drug deal, or any other illegal activities they discussed. If the deal had been free phones in exchange for their parents and the police being able to view data there would have been a lot less takers. If they had told the teenagers that anyone would be able to view their messages, I assure you the results would have been drastically different.

    • mahadragon Knix May 21, 2012 on 12:13 am

      Few of these kids were teenagers. Read the story. They were in 4th grade when they started the study and stopped it 1 year BEFORE they entered High School. You are wayy off.

  • benbradley May 14, 2012 on 1:39 pm

    This is not a big surprise to me. I recall a study 1- to 15 years ago about how attitudes about email spam vary with age. Younger people were much less likely to regard spam as an intrusion or an inappropriate form of advertising.

  • turtles_allthewaydown May 14, 2012 on 2:54 pm

    Maybe it’s not such a generational thing where they’re more comfortable with technology, maybe it’s more a matter of being young and naive, and not yet being burned on your first job interview because of those party pictures on facebook. These same people might change their views when they’re older and wiser.

    Still, it’s not like their posts and texts were out there in the open for anybody to see. Only for the researchers, who presumably made all the names somewhat anonymous, like the example above, before it was used to crunch data, and perhaps to share with other researchers.

    I bet if somebody did commit suicide or murder and the precursors were there in their texts but nobody was alerted, the study would have made major news and there’d be lawsuits all over.

  • mahadragon May 21, 2012 on 12:12 am

    Allow me to wake you people up. These students were in 4th Grade when they signed onto this program. That would make the avg kid around 8 yrs old. The study was for 4 years. That would make the avg age of the kid 12 when the study ended. It’s safe to say, most of these kids were NOT teenagers and were in fact, just kids when this study was happening.

    This isn’t rocket science folks. Kids in general are less ashamed and are more open to anything thrown at them at age 8-12. They are still like little sponges soaking everything up. All these kids were years before being able to vote, drive, or hold a real job. Some of them were probably still watching Sesame Street.