A survey released Wednesday by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 44% of U.S. Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29 take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online. That compares to 33% of Internet users between the ages of 30 and 49, 25% from 50 to 64, and 20% age 65 and older.
"Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities," Mary Madden, senior research specialist and lead author of the report, said in a statement.
Of the younger age group, 71% of social networking users have changed privacy settings on their profiles to limit what they share with others, compared to only 55% of users from 50 to 64.
In addition, nearly half of 18- to 29-year-olds have deleted comments that others have made on their profiles, compared to roughly three in 10 people in the older age groups, the survey found. Also more than 40% of the youngest age group have removed their names from photos on social networks that were tagged to identify them, compared to 24% of 30- to 49-year-old and 18% of 50- to 64-year-olds.
Besides working harder at controlling information about themselves on the Web, young adults are also less trusting of sites that host their personal information. When asked whether they can trust sites like Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, 28% of the youngest age group said "never," compared to 19% of 30- to 49-year-olds, and 14% of 50- to 64-year-olds.
Diligence in monitoring one's reputation has become critical, given the increasing use of search engines and social networks to find information about people. Fully 44% of online adults have searched for information about someone whose services or advice they seek in a professional capacity, the survey found. In addition, employers are more likely than ever to have policies on how employees present themselves online, and everyone from co-workers and business competitors to potential suitors and neighbors could be searching for information about a person at any time.
"Search engines and social media sites now play a central role in building one's identity online," Madden said.
The Pew study was based on telephone interviews of 2,253 adults from Aug. 18 to Sept. 14, 2009.
Public concern over online privacy has spurred Congress into considering changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. Tech companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have joined privacy advocates and academics in seeking tougher laws, but the focus of those companies has been on raising the standards for government access to e-mail, instant messages, and personal files stored online.