Over time, users have become less likely to express concern about the amount of information available about them online.
To even the most casual news observer, the stream of stories documenting commercial and government data breaches, employers Googling job candidates and celebrities committing Twitter faux pas may make it seem as though there are more reasons than ever to worry about the amount of information connected to people’s names online. And given that users have become more aware of their digital footprints over the years, one might expect that concerns over the availability of this information have grown. Yet, over time, adult internet users have actually become less likely to express concern about the size of their digital footprints:
- 33% of internet users say they worry about how much information is available about them online, down from 40% in December 2006.
- These decreased levels of concern are fairly uniform across demographic groups—no group saw an increase on this metric over the last three years.
And while there are few differences on this question with respect to income, education, race or gender, age remains an important predictor of concern. Among age groups, internet users ages 30-49 are the most likely to worry about the amount of information available online: 38% say they are concerned, compared with 30% of users ages 18-29, 31% of those ages 50-64 and 23% of those 65 and older.
However, it is important to note that the results from this question are not a measure of internet users’ overall views on “privacy” or the extent to which they wish to have control over their personal information online. A relative lack of concern about the availability of personal information online does not necessarily translate into inaction. Indeed, many of the least concerned internet users have still taken steps to restrict what they share with others.
For example, two-thirds of all SNS users (65%) say they have changed the privacy settings for their profile to limit what they share with others online. Among SNS users who worry about the availability of their online information, fully 77% have changed their privacy settings. However, even those who don’t worry about such information are relatively active in this regard—59% of these less concerned SNS users have adjusted their privacy settings in this way.
It’s also the case that very few internet users have experienced reputational missteps online, which may contribute to their relatively low levels of concern. Only 4% internet users report having bad experiences because embarrassing or inaccurate information was posted about them online (unchanged since 2006). Even among the highly visible “public personae” population that is required to self-promote online, just 6% report a bad experience due to embarrassing or inaccurate information being posted online.
Likewise, just 8% of all adult internet users have asked that information that was posted about them online be removed, which is virtually unchanged from the 6% of internet users who reported these requests in 2006. And for the first time, we asked social networking users about their own role in sharing undesirable material; just 12% of social networking users say they have posted updates, comments, photos or videos that they later regret sharing.
Young adults are still more likely than older users to say they limit the amount of information available about them online.
The percentage of internet users who take steps to limit the information available about them on the internet has also declined, albeit by a slightly smaller margin. One-third (33%) of internet users take steps to limit the amount of information available about them online, down from 38% of such users in December 2006. Young internet users (those ages 18-29) remain the most likely group to limit the information available about them online—45% did this in December 2006, and 44% do so now.
When compared with other age groups, young adults are the only group that remains just as likely to limit their online information as they were in 2006. Older age groups are not only less likely than young adults to say that they limit their information, but they have become less likely to do so over time. In the latest survey, 33% of 30-49 year olds, 25% of 50-64 year olds and 20% of those 65 and older said they take steps to limit their information online. That compares to 40% of 30-49 year olds, 32% of 50-64 year olds and 28% of those 65 and older who said they take steps to limit their information in 2006.
There are few differences on this question with respect to income, education, race or gender. Likewise, the only difference relating to geography is the finding that suburban internet users (35%) are a marginally more likely to say they take steps to limit the amount of information available about them when compared with rural users (26% of whom do so).
Wireless and broadband users are no more concerned, but are more likely to limit the amount of information available about them online.
Interestingly, while both wireless and broadband users are more likely to take steps to limit their personal information they are no more likely than other internet users to be worried about how much information is available about them online. Some 36% of home broadband users take steps to limit their personal information (compared with 24% of dialup users), while 35% of wireless users limit their personal information (compared with 27% of stationary internet users).
Those who know more, worry more.
Worries about the availability of personal information and taking steps to limit that information are tightly linked with the amount of searching (both personal searches and searches about others) one takes part in. In our 2006 survey, those who searched their own name were just as likely to worry about how much information is available about them online as were those who did not self-search. Now, those who self-search are significantly more likely than those who do not search to worry about their online footprints (37% vs. 27%).
Yet, self-searchers have not become any more likely to express concern as time has progressed. In 2006, 40% of self-searches said they were worried about the amount of information available about them online, and 37% reported the same in 2009. The overall drop in those who say they worry about the amount of information available about them on the internet is primarily among those who have never used a search engine to look up their own names online. Chances are, if you haven’t bothered to Google your name by now, you don’t spend much time fretting about your digital footprints.
And those who express concern are twice as likely to say they take steps to limit the amount of information available about them online.
Those who express concern about the amount of information available about them online are far more likely to take steps to limit access to that material; 53% of those who worry also take steps to limit, compared with just 23% of internet users who do not express concern. This finding is unchanged since 2006 when 54% of those who were worried said they took steps to limit access to information about them.
However, concern about and limitation of information do not always go hand in hand. Among internet users who say they worry about how much information is available about them online, 45% say they do not take steps to limit the amount of information accessible to others online.
The most visible and engaged internet users are also most active in limiting the information connected to their names online.
At first glance, this finding seems to suggest an inherent contradiction. Wouldn’t those who are less visible online be the ones doing the most to limit their information? However, analysis of multiple questions on our survey implies quite the opposite. Those who are the most engaged online have more material to manage and therefore need to be more proactive in limiting that information—whether that means changing the default privacy settings on a social networking profile or requesting that inaccurate information be removed from a website.
The more active people are in searching for results connected to their names online, the more likely they are to take steps to limit that information: Internet users who search for their own name are more likely to limit the information available about them online than those who do not (39% vs. 24%).
Those who report the most information being available about them online are also the most likely to say they take steps to limit what is accessible: Those who report the widest range of information being available about them (at least 5 of the 11 items we asked about) are considerably more likely to say they take steps to limit their information than are those who report only 1 or 2 items being available (43% vs. 30%).
The more you see footprints left by others, the more likely you are to limit your own.
Those who search for information about others are more than twice as likely as non-searchers to limit their personal information than those who do not (39% vs. 17%). And the more often a user searches for information about others, the more likely she is to limit access to her own personal information. Among people searchers who say they look for information about others at least every once in a while, 46% say they take steps to limit the amount of content accessible about themselves online. That compares with just 33% of those who have searched for information about others only once or twice.
Social networking users are no more concerned, but are more likely to limit the amount of information accessible to others online.
Social network users are no more or less likely than non-users to worry about the availability of information about them online (32% for SNS users, 34% for non-users). However, profile owners are consistently more likely to take steps to limit their personal information (41% do this, vs. 26% of non-users).
The gap between SNS users and non-users has actually decreased significantly since 2006 when it comes to limiting personal information online. In 2006, the difference between users and non-users on this question was 23 percentage points (57% vs. 34%); now the gap is 15 points. In other words, compared with the general online population, users of online social networks are now less likely to limit their personal information online than they were three years ago.
Those who take steps to limit the information about them online are less likely to post comments online using their real name.
Those who worry about how much information is available about them online are roughly as likely to post comments, queries and other information online (using a real name, a screen name, or anonymously) as those who do not worry about their personal information—57% vs. 52%.
However, those who take steps to limit their personal information are much more likely to post online—69% of these internet users have posted something online, compared with 47% of those who do not take steps to limit their personal information. And within the universe of content posters, those who take steps to limit their personal information are generally less likely to use their real names (40% usually do so, compared with 49% of posters who do not take steps to limit their personal info) and more likely to use a screen name (46% vs. 38%). Content posters who limit their personal information and those who do not are equally likely to post anonymously (10% vs. 7%).
If your boss is watching, you’re more likely to be watching, too.
As noted above, overall, 12% of employed adults say they need to market themselves online as part of their job. These public personae who are required to self promote online are more proactive in monitoring their online identities than those who do not have this kind of professional obligation.
Fully 84% of those who say they need to post information about themselves online as part of their job use a search engine to look up their own name, which is up significantly from 68% in 2006. Among other employed internet users who are not required to market themselves online, just 55% use search engines to find results connected to their name.
Again, as in 2006, public personae are more active in monitoring and managing their digital footprint; 44% of those who follow their footprints via search engines say they do so at least every once in a while. Among other employed internet users, only 20% do so with the same level of frequency.
The greater level of vigilance among public personae is also illustrated by a greater likelihood to limit the amount of information available about them. Four in ten (42%) of these “public personae” say they take steps to limit their personal information compared with 32% of other employed internet users. However, public personae are no more likely to worry about the amount of information accessible about them online.
However, those whose workplaces have explicit policies about employees’ presence online do express slightly higher levels of concern; 41% of those who work for a company with a policy about how employees should present themselves online worry about the information that is available about them (vs. 29% of those whose companies do not have such policies). The difference in limiting behavior is slightly less pronounced; 39% of those with company policies about self-presentation online take steps to limit their personal information compared with 31% of employees whose companies do not have such policies.