Connecting and protecting? Comparing predictors of self-
disclosure and privacy settings use between adolescents and
, Ini Vanwesenbeeck2
, Wannes Heirman3
Department of Communication Studies, Research Group MIOS, University of
The present study serves two purposes. First, we explore how adolescents and adults
approach the disclosure of personal information and the application of privacy settings on
social network sites (SNS). Second, we investigate whether the factors that predict these two
privacy-management strategies differ for adolescents and adults. To achieve the goals of this
study, an online survey was conducted among a sample of 1484 SNS users ranging in age
from 10 to 65 years. In addition to gender and age, we investigated the following predictors:
frequency of and motives for SNS use, trust in other users, peer influence and concerns
related to privacy and contact risks. The results show that adolescents disclose more
personal data and apply more lenient privacy settings to these data than adults do. Several
factors were found to affect disclosure and profile-access management, with differences
between adolescents and adults in some cases. Finally, we discuss implications emerging
from the study’s findings.
Keywords: social network sites, self-disclosure, privacy settings, adults, adolescents
The evolution of social media into a mainstream phenomenon constitutes one of the
most important evolutions in the short history of the Internet thus far. For many
Internet users, social network sites (SNS) have emerged as a preferred way of
communicating with others. The inherent social function of SNS is often associated
with positive outcomes. The use of SNS offers opportunities for consolidating ties in
networks of close friends and families, for offering and obtaining emotional support
or, in the terms of Putnam (2000), for developing bonding social capital.Further, by
opening their profiles to a broader audience and by being searchable and reachable
to users outside their direct networks, users can enhance their bridging social
capital or weak ties (e.g. Putnam, 2000; Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2011). These
expanded opportunities for people to use SNS to maintain and extend their social
networks have been associated with elevated levels of self-esteem and experienced
well-being (Pelling & White, 2009). Self-esteem is particularly likely to be fostered
when SNS users provide each other with positive feedback on posts made on their
walls (Valkenburg, Peter & Schouten, 2006).
Privacy at stake
Despite the tremendous opportunities that SNS offer for connecting and bonding,
privacy issues emerging from their use are currently receiving increasing media
attention (e.g. Bilton, 2011; Helft, 2011). These privacy issues have emerged
largely because many SNS platforms encourage their members to disclose lots of
personal information on their personalised pages („profiles‟). Moreover, SNS
generate their revenues largely through business models that include the
processing of this disclosed personal information for commercial purposes (e.g.
micro-targeted advertising) (Thelwall, 2009).
Privacy and other issues related to SNS have become a much-publicised and
controversial topic in the media. For adolescent SNS users, personal information
disclosed on SNS can be used for purposes of identity theft, stalking, cyberbullying
or sexual harassment by online predators. Even adult SNS users can be affected in
their sense of online privacy, as illustrated by media reports of cases involving
intrusions into the family or professional lives of adult users. Examples include
burglaries in the homes of people who had made imprudent holiday announcements
(e.g. Britten, 2010) or employees who have lost their jobs because they had posted
inconsiderate comments about their employers (e.g. Smith & Kanalley, 2011).
The increased attention in the popular press to risks associated with the use of SNS
by adults and adolescents has also increased attention from academia. Increasing
research is being devoted to SNS use and the risks associated with potential misuse
of the information divulged on the online profiles of both adolescents and adults
(e.g. Livingstone, Haddon, Gorzig & Olafsson, 2011; Palfrey, 2008; Vandoninck,
d‟Haenens, De Cock, & Donoso, 2011; Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008).
In the context of this study, the concept of information privacy is important.
According to Westin (1967, p. 7) this concept refers to „the claim of individuals,
groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent
information about themselves is communicated to others‟. In addition to the initial
decisions of users regarding whether to divulge personal information, information
privacy includes also their possibilities to control the extent to which disclosed
personal information is made public.
In this regard, users can implement two main strategies in order to manage their
privacy on SNS.
First, users can limit the amount and type of information they disclose about
themselves online. In the context of SNS, self-disclosure has been defined as „the
amount of information shared on user‟s profile as well as in the process of the
communication with others‟ (Krasnova & Veltri, 2010, p. 1). Upon opening accounts
on SNS or when updating their profile information, users can decide whether they
are willing to enter specific types of personal information in the entry fields
provided. It is important to note, however, that SNS are designed to encourage
users to disclose and update personal information and share their experiences and,
by doing so, adding to the site‟s vibrancy.
In addition to decisions regarding data disclosure on SNS, Internet users can also
apply fine-grained privacy settings to determine who will have access to these data,
ranging from a broad audience (e.g. „all users‟) to a narrower group of users (e.g.
„friends and their friends‟, „only friends‟, „restricted to myself‟ or even specific
This study has two objectives. First, we aim to provide further insight into the ways
in which adolescents and adults manage their personal information on SNS and how
they apply privacy settings to the information they are willing to disclose. Second,
we aim to compare an adult and an adolescent sample with regard to predictors of
the two SNS privacy-management strategies described above. Specifically, we
attempt to verify whether the predictors of SNS disclosure and the use of privacy
settings overlap, or whether their relative importance differs for the two age
groups. In the following paragraph, we discuss why we consider it important to
compare both SNS privacy-management strategies of these two age groups.
Why compare the privacy strategies of teenagers and adults on SNS?
According to popular belief, adolescents tend to „overshare‟ online. Many adults
report that they would not disclose specific information online, as they consider it
too private or too sensitive (e.g. Hoffman, 2012; Holson, 2010). Nevertheless,
comparative research remains scarce. Early research has shown that, compared to
adults, adolescents do indeed report higher levels of personal information disclosure
and lower levels of privacy settings use (Christofides et al., 2011). Adolescents
have also been shown to be more willing than adults are to disclose personal
information in other contexts as well (e.g. online marketing), and they are more
inclined to respond positively to data requests in exchange for free gifts (Earp &
Baumer, 2003; Turow & Nir, 2000; Walrave & Heirman, 2012). This finding
corresponds to other, more general research into the decision-making processes of
adolescents in risk situations. The findings of such research show that the decision-
making processes of adolescents tend to be driven more by rewards and less by
risks than are those of adults (Furby & Beyth-Marom, 1992). Younger SNS users
could thus be less concerned about the possible consequences of their online data
disclosure, as they tend to concentrate more on the social rewards they receive
when disclosing information with their online networks. Correspondingly, research
into online privacy concerns shows that adolescents are less concerned than adults
are about possible privacy-related risks, including identity theft and loss of control
over personal data (Earp & Baumer, 2003). Moreover, privacy concern has been
found to increase with age. Research has shown that senior citizens are more
concerned about their online privacy than are either adolescents or young adults
(Fox et al., 2000; Hoofnagle, King, Li, & Turow, 2010; Zukowski & Brown, 2007).
In summary, given early research showing that adolescents are generally more
inclined than adults are to engage in risky behaviors, disclose more readily personal
information and are less concerned about privacy risks, other factors could affect
online data disclosure and the application of SNS privacy settings to manage profile
access. The identification of these predictors could help in the development of
intervention efforts based on the most relevant predictors for different age groups.
The present study therefore aims to determine whether adolescents differ from
adults with regard to predictors of SNS privacy management. With this study, we
hope to provide policymakers with better information regarding intervention
approaches that could be implemented for SNS users of both age groups.
In order to identify the variables that should be included in the questionnaire and
subsequent analyses, we conducted a literature review concerning the experiences
of Internet users with SNS. We included important demographic (gender, age), use
(frequency, motives) and psychological variables (privacy-related concerns,
contact-related concerns, trust, susceptibility to peer influence).
In the following section, we formulate hypotheses regarding the expected effects of
each of the discerned variables on the SNS disclosure and privacy settings usage of
adolescents and adults.
Previous research suggests that the ways in which Internet users decide to use SNS
is partially determined by demographic factors.
With regard to gender differences in personal data disclosure, Lenhart and Madden
(2007) report that male teenagers using SNS were more eager to share their
telephone numbers and home addresses than female teenagers were. Tufekci
(2008) explains this finding by arguing that males are more inclined to use SNS to
meet new people and to engage in new romantic relationships. Females use SNS
primarily to consolidate existing relationships with friends instead of to establish
new social ties. According to several studies, these gender differences appear to
persist throughout adulthood (Hoy & Milne, 2010; Fogel & Nehmad, 2009). The
findings of a study by Christofides and colleagues (2011), however, reveal no
gender differences in the level of personal data disclosure, although female users
do appear significantly more likely to apply SNS privacy settings than male users
are (Christofides et al., 2011). The latter finding has been echoed in other studies
(e.g. Hoy & Milne, 2010; Livingstone et al., 2011a; Tufekci, 2008; Raacke & Bonds-
In short, previous research indicates that females are generally more protective of
their online privacy with regard to the amount of data disclosed on SNS and the
level of access to these data. We therefore hypothesize that:
H1a: Both adolescent and adult females disclose less personal information on
their profile pages than do males.
H1b: Both adolescent and adult females apply more restrictions to their
profile data access than do males.
Within the adolescent age group, differences in SNS disclosure level have been
observed between younger and older teenagers. For example, Lenhart and Madden
(2007) observed that older teenagers were more likely to disclose photographs and
the names of their schools, although no significant differences were found for other
types of data. Livingstone and colleagues (2011b) report that older teenagers are
more prone to disclose their telephone numbers, schools or addresses than are
younger teenagers. These findings correspond with more general research on self-
disclosure by adolescents outside the context of SNS. Based on a review of 50
studies addressing self-disclosure by children and teenagers, Buhrmester and
Prager (1995) report an overall increase with age in self-disclosure to peers. Given
that adolescence is a period of identity exploration, self-disclosure has the potential
to help adolescents to develop their own identities by clarifying their own self-
images and by generating external feedback from their peers (Buhrmester &
Prager, 1995; Steinberg, 2011).
As adolescents age, however, their competence in managing their SNS privacy
settings increases. According to one European study, over half (56%) of users aged
11-12 years claim to be able to manage their privacy settings, as compared to
more than three quarters (78%) of those aged 13-16 years (Livingstone, Olafsson,
& Staksrud, 2011). Interestingly, this knowledge also seems to be put into practice.
Children and younger teens (9-12 years) were found to be slightly more likely to
have public profiles than were older teens (13-16 years) (Livingstone et al.,
2011b). This corroborates the findings of Christofides and colleagues (2011) that,
as adolescents grow older, they are more inclined to restrict access to their profiles.
In short, early studies paint a somewhat mixed picture of the way in which older
adolescents approach privacy protection: although they disclose relatively more
data, they apparently apply stricter privacy settings than young teenagers do.
Differences have also been found among adults with regard to privacy-related
concerns and protective behaviors. Although similarities have been found between
younger and older adults regarding some privacy-related issues, a study among a
large sample of Americans (18-65+) also revealed many discrepancies (Hoofnagle
et al., 2010). The older adults in this study reported being more concerned about
privacy issues on the Internet, and they were more likely to refuse to disclose
personal information to businesses. Moreover, young adults overestimated the
extent to which privacy laws protect individuals, both offline and online. Other
studies have shown that privacy concerns increase with age. Elderly Internet users
are more concerned than others are, and they are more eager to control the
personal information that is collected about them (Fox et al., 2000; Zukowski &
Maaβ (2011) argues that senior citizens tend to adopt a „minimax‟ strategy in their
Internet use: they seek to maximize the rewards of their Internet use, in terms of
connection and support, while minimizing risks. Senior citizens who use SNS could
thus be more inclined to apply privacy-protective strategies (e.g. disclosing fewer
personal details and restricting access to their profiles).
We therefore hypothesize that:
H2a: As adolescents grow older, they disclose more personal data, whereas
adults disclose less personal data as they age.
H2b: As SNS users grow older, they are more likely to restrict access to their
Frequency of SNS use
Research has revealed a positive correlation between the frequency of online
communication and self-disclosure (e.g. Valkenburg & Peter, 2009). Within the
context of SNS, a longitudinal study by Trepte and Reinecke (2011) shows that
users who are prone to engage in self-disclosure are more inclined to use SNS.
Over time, frequent SNS users exhibit a greater tendency towards self-disclosure.
This process is reinforced by the amount of social rewards that users receive. Given
that self-disclosure can stimulate social interaction, it can lead to feedback or other
actions that can be perceived by users as social rewards. It thus follows that the
more users receive what they perceive as social rewards (in terms of bonding with
other SNS users), the more they tend to self-disclose. Further, by granting access
to their profiles to a broader audience, users can enhance their number of weak ties
(e.g. Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2011). In summary, by disclosing personal
information and relaxing their privacy settings, users can lower the thresholds to
initial interaction with users outside of their actual networks, thus facilitating the
formation of common ground (Ellison, Lampe, Steinfield & Vitak, 2010).
Based on the studies mentioned above, we hypothesize that:
H3a: For both adolescents and adults, the frequency of SNS use is positively
related to the level of personal data disclosure.
H3b: Individuals who use SNS more frequently impose fewer restrictions on
access to their profiles through privacy settings.
Motives for use
Several studies have demonstrated that people use SNS for a wide range of
interpersonal motives. Some use these sites to maintain contact with friends they
rarely see offline, while others use them to make new friends or to follow the lives
of SNS friends by viewing pictures and status updates. Many people have also re-
established contact with old friends through SNS (Ellison et al., 2007; Joinson,
2008; Raacke & Bonds-Raacke, 2008). In addition to these relational and friendship
motives, additional categories of SNS motives can be discerned, including
entertainment, information and the desire to escape the reality of everyday life (Lin
& Lu, 2011; Papacharissi & Mendelson, 2011).
Previous studies have examined the impact that motivations for use have on self-
disclosure through computer-mediated communication. For example, Cho (2007)
reports that self-disclosure in online chatting is fuelled by a variety of motivations,
with higher levels of disclosure for people seeking to develop interpersonal
relationships than for those in search of information. In another study, Gibbs and
colleagues (2006) establish that online daters with long-term relationship goals
engage in higher levels of self-disclosure than do other users.
Moreover, Joinson (2008) reports a significant association between motivations for
SNS use and the application of privacy settings, suggesting that the motivation to
meet new people is an important motivation for making online profiles less private.
Based on the findings presented above, we hypothesize that:
H4a: A positive relationship exists between the motivation of SNS users to
develop and maintain interpersonal relationships and the amount of personal
information that they disclose on SNS.
H4b: The more people use SNS to develop interpersonal relationships with
new acquaintances, the less they restrict access to personal information on
In order for SNS to function properly, users must be willing to share some personal
information about themselves. Although such sharing is accompanied by at least
some level of risk (e.g. identity theft) evidence suggests that millions of SNS
members do not hesitate to share personal data and even intimate thoughts within
these virtual networks (Acquisti & Gross, 2006). For this reason, Grabner-Krauter
(2009, p. 506) argues that „social networking takes place in a context of trust‟. This
context of trust has two dimensions. First, SNS members trust other community
members not to misuse the thoughts, life experiences and other sensitive
information that they share. Second, individual SNS members trust the providers of
these sites to secure their personal data. In our study, we are interested only in
exploring the predictive value of trust in other SNS members on the management
of SNS privacy.
Metzger (2004) argues that the role of trust in online disclosure situations should
not be underestimated, given the absence of physical contact in computer-
mediated communication, which reduces the number of social cues available to help
verify the trustworthiness of online partners. Although SNS users probably know
most of the contacts in their friend lists, these friend lists consist of a wide variety
of people (Lewis & West, 2009). Moreover, some users do accept friendship
requests from total strangers (Patil, 2012). Especially in situations in which SNS
users have little trust in some of the contacts included in their friend lists, they may
feel less inclined to disclose personal information and more inclined to apply stricter
privacy settings. In this regard, previous research has established a strong and
significant positive correlation between information disclosure on SNS and the level
of trust in other SNS members (Mital, Israel & Agarwal, 2010). According to
another study (Christofides et al., 2009), lower levels of trust in other SNS
members is a significant predictor of higher levels of information control.
Based on the studies mentioned above, we hypothesize that:
H5a: Trust in other SNS members is positively associated with the amount of
information divulged on SNS.
H5b: The higher the level of trust in other SNS members, the less a user will
be inclined to apply strict privacy settings.
Within the context of SNS, several studies have reported a negative correlation
between privacy-related concerns and personal data disclosure (e.g. De Souza &
Dick, 2009; Krasnova & Veltri, 2010; Nov & Wattal, 2009). Moreover, some studies
(Utz & Kramer, 2009; Nov & Wattal, 2009) have revealed a positive relationship
between privacy-related concerns and the application of stricter privacy settings.
Stutzman and colleagues (2011) report that concerns about information leakage
are particularly likely to be associated with the application of stricter privacy
Based on these findings, we expect that:
H6a: Privacy-related concerns are negatively associated with personal data
disclosure on SNS.
H6b: As privacy-related concerns increase, SNS users are more inclined to
restrict access to their profile data.
In a study by Strater and Lipford (2008), respondents reporting events about
unwanted and intrusive contacts made by strangers on SNS were more likely than
other users to give thorough consideration to the information that they should
disclose and the level of access they should allow to their profile data. More
specifically, Debatim and colleagues (2009) report that SNS users who had
personally experienced privacy invasions are more likely to modify their privacy
settings. In summary, concerns about contact-related risks can be fuelled by
personal experiences, as well as by other variables (e.g. media coverage
concerning risks associated with SNS use), which could subsequently influence
privacy management in SNS (Debatim, Lovejoy, Horn, & Hughes, 2009; Utz &
We therefore hypothesize that:
H7a: Concerns related to contact risks are negatively associated with
personal data disclosure.
H7b: As concerns related to contact risks increase, SNS users apply greater
access restrictions to their profiles.
The ways in which peers influence the decision-making of adolescents in their daily
lives have been extensively documented (for a review, see Rubin, Bukowski, &
Laursen, 2011). Peers are considered important agents of consumer socialisation,
especially during adolescence, due to their influence on many adolescent behaviors
(Ekstrom, 2010). More specific to the context of social media, adolescents use SNS
to communicate with peers (Lenhart & Madden, 2007; Wiley & Sisson, 2006), and
this fosters the development of individual identity, the quality of peer relationships
and self-esteem (Valkenburg, Peter, & Schouten, 2006). The use of SNS may
provide adolescents with a venue for receiving peer feedback about themselves.
This is especially useful for adolescents, who are highly susceptible to peer
influence. Although empirical research on the relationship between peer influence
and SNS disclosure is scarce, previous studies have suggested peer influence as a
possible venue for future investigations on the amount of data that young people
disclose on SNS (Acquisti & Gross, 2006). More specifically, adolescents who are
more susceptible to peer influence and who have a greater need for popularity
among their peers are assumed to provoke relatively more peer feedback by
disclosing more and subsequently applying fewer restrictions to the disclosed
information (Christofides, Muise, & Desmarais, 2009).
Fewer studies have addressed the topic of peer influence on adults. In general,
adolescents are seen as more susceptible to the influence of their peers than adults
are (Steinberg & Monahan, 2007). According to an experimental study by Gardner
and Steinberg (2005), the peer effects on risk-taking and risky decision-making are
stronger among adolescents than they are among adults. Gardner and Steinberg
(2005) suggest that the psychosocial capacities needed to resist peer pressure may
continue to develop throughout late adolescence and into early adulthood.
Based on the studies mentioned above, we hypothesize that:
H8a: High susceptibility to peer influence is positively associated with the
level of SNS disclosure.
H8b: SNS users who are highly susceptible to peer influence are less inclined
to use SNS privacy settings to restrict access to their profile data.
Procedure and participants
We conducted an online survey in collaboration with MSN in Belgium. The study
was presented as an investigation of SNS usage. In order to avoid priming the
participants, the invitation to participate in the survey contained no allusion to
privacy issues. Individuals with SNS profiles were invited to participate. The
invitation was presented on the MSN starting page.
The total sample consisted of 1484 respondents. The youth sample consisted of 343
respondents (aged 10-19, M = 16.2, SD = 2.2) including a balanced mix of boys
(45%) and girls (55%). The adult sample (aged 20-65, M = 40.0,SD = 14.1)
consisted of 54% women.
Frequency of SNS use: The frequency of SNS use was measured by asking
respondents how often they consulted their profile sites (six-point scale ranging
from „once a month or less‟ to „several times a day‟).
Personal data disclosure: In order to assess their disclosure of personal
information, respondents were confronted by a list of 18 types of personal data.
The respondents were subsequently asked whether they had divulged each type of
information on their profiles. The scale was found to be reliable (α = .90). A
summative index was used to measure the level of data disclosure.
Application of privacy settings: We assessed the application of privacy settings
by asking respondents how they managed the access to the personal data divulged
on their profiles. For each piece of information disclosed on their profiles,
respondents could indicate their level of access by choosing one of the following
four categories: „all users‟, „friends and their friends‟, „only friends‟ or „restricted to
myself‟. Raw scores were aggregated, with higher values indicating a higher level of
restriction on access to profile data through the application of privacy settings. This
scale was found reliable (α = .89).
Motives: In order to gain insight into the motives that the respondents had for
using SNS, the questionnaire included a series of seven items regarding the
importance of specific contact-related motives (based on Subrahmanyam et al.,
2008), measured on a five-point scale (ranging from „not important at all‟ to „very
Concerns: Two types of concerns were measured. To probe the level of privacy
concern, respondents were presented with a series of nine statements, based on,
amongst others, Milne and Culnan (2004). The following is an example: „I am
concerned about what websites do with my personal data‟. Responses were
measured using a five-point Likert scale anchored by 1 („totally disagree‟) and 5
(„totally agree‟). Factor analysis identified a single factor (see Appendix), consisting
of seven items, and the scale was found reliable (α = .76). Raw scores were
summed, with higher values indicating a higher level of privacy concern.
We then measured the concerns held by the respondents with regard to the
possible negative consequences of SNS use, especially contact-related risks (e.g. „I
am concerned about the possible misuse of my profile to bully me‟). Four items
were measured using a five-point scale, and they formed a single factor (α = .71,
see Appendix). Subsequently, a summative index was constructed, with higher
scores on the scale defining higher levels of SNS contact-related concerns.
Trust: A scale was constructed to assess the level of trust in other SNS users.
These three items were measured using a five-point scale, and they formed a single
factor (e.g. „People I meet on SNS are trustworthy‟, α = .77, see Appendix).
Susceptibility to peer influence: Peer Influence was assessed using items from
Bearden, Netemeyer and Teel‟s (1989) and Mangleburg and Bristol‟s (1998) scales
for measuring the extent to which individuals are inclined to follow advice from
their peers in consumption situations. A single factor was discerned. This seven-
item scale was found reliable (α = .88, see Appendix).
The results of our study show that the most popular SNS among the adolescent
respondents was Facebook (60%), followed by the Belgium-based Netlog (55%).
Facebook (55%) was also the most popular SNS among adult respondents.
Although the difference in popularity between Facebook and Netlog was relatively
small among adolescents, we found a greater discrepancy in this regard among
adults, with only 20% of the adult respondents using Netlog. This is not surprising,
as Netlog is targeted primarily at young people between the ages of 14 and 24
years (Donoso, 2011). Other SNS were used by a small minority of both adults and
adolescents: Hyves (adolescents: 6%; adults: 4%), LinkedIn (adolescents: 0.5%;
adults: 5%), MySpace (adolescents: 7%; adults: 7%) and Twitter (adolescents:
7%; adults: 2%; other SNS: adolescents: 10,5%; adults: 5%).
Both of the most popular SNS in Belgium offer granular privacy settings that allow
users to restrict the access of other users to their personal data (Fluckiger, Grehan
& Donoso, 2011; Walrave, Taddicken & Donoso, 2011).
Our results reveal a major difference between adolescents and adults with regard to
the frequency of SNS usage. Whereas a majority (54%) of the adolescent
respondents reported checking their profile at least once a day, only 45% of the
adult respondents did so (χ2
= 13.98, df = 1, p < .001). The same holds for posting
status updates: while 17% of teens posted messages at least daily, only 12% of
adults did so (χ2
= 7.16, df = 1, p < .001).
Comparison of the subsamples of teenagers and adults reveals significant
differences with regard to the disclosure of data on SNS and the application of
privacy settings. On average, adolescents were inclined to disclose 13 of the 18
requested pieces of personal information (M = 13.4, SD = 4.0), whereas adults
were willing to disclose significantly less information (M = 12.0, SD = 4.6, t(1002)
= 3.11, p < .05). Moreover, teenagers scored significantly lower on the scale
measuring the application of privacy settings, which indicates that they allow a
broader audience access to their profile data (adolescents: M = 35.5, SD = 13.2;
adults: M = 39.6, SD = 14.2, t(954) = 5.92, p < .001).
We found no significant difference between the two subsamples with regard to the
level of trust in other SNS users (adolescents: M = 3.0, SD = 2.6; adults: M =
3.1, SD = 2.5, t(2054) = -.34, p > .05). Interestingly, trust in SNS users was quite
low. An additional finding is that the adolescent respondents were less concerned
about their online privacy than the adult respondents were (adolescents: M =
27.6, SD = 4.7; adults: M = 29.1, SD = 4.4, t(1323) = -8.29, p < .001). The same
holds for concerns about contact-related risks (adolescents: M = 16.4, SD = 4.9;
adults: M = 17.9, SD = 5.0, t(888) = -5.92, p <.001). Finally, adolescents scored
significantly higher on susceptibility to peer influence (adolescents: M = 11.8, SD =
5.8; adults: M = 10.3, SD = 6.1, t(942) = 4.87, p < .001).
Predicting SNS privacy management
As mentioned before, the second objective of this study (in addition to providing
additional insight into the ways in which Internet users approach disclosure and the
application of SNS privacy settings) is to compare whether the two SNS privacy-
management strategies are fuelled by the same predictors for adolescents and
adults. To compare possible predictors of data disclosure and the application of
privacy settings, separate hierarchical regressions were performed for each age
In the sequential regression equations, gender and age were entered first, followed
by the frequency of SNS usage and motives. Variables measuring trust in other
SNS users, general online privacy concerns and specific concerns related to online
contact risks were entered in subsequent equations. The final regression equation
included also the susceptibility of respondents to peer influence.
Predicting disclosure: Adolescents versus adults
The regression equation accounted for 16% of the variation in data disclosure by
adolescents and for 12% of such variation among adults. The final models are
summarised in Table 1.
The main predictors of data disclosure differed between adolescents and adults.
For adolescents, the use of SNS to communicate with schoolmates, gender and
susceptibility to peer influence were significant predictors of SNS data disclosure.
The three most important predictors for adults were the frequency of SNS usage,
level of trust in other SNS members and using SNS to find a partner.
Our analyses show that the most important predictor of SNS disclosure by
adolescents is the motivation to communicate online with schoolmates outside of
class hours. Female adolescents proved less inclined to disclose personal data, and
adolescents who were more susceptible to peer influence were inclined to disclose
more personal information. Adolescents motivated to use SNS in order to reconnect
with distant friends were also inclined to disclose more personal data.
The analyses further identify the frequency of SNS usage as the most important
predictor of the disclosure of personal data by adults. Other significant predictors
include trust and concerns related to privacy risks. Our results reveal a positive
relationship between the level of trust that adults have in other SNS users and the
amount of personal data that they disclose on their profiles. Conversely, a negative
relationship exists between the level of concern for privacy on the part of adults
and the extent to which they disclose data on SNS. The results further identify
three contact motives for using SNS as significant predictors of disclosure:
communicating with colleagues, engaging in communication with family members
and searching for a partner.
Although we found no significant gender difference for adult SNS disclosure, we did
find that age has a significant influence, with older adults being less willing to
disclose personal data on their profiles.
Table 1. Predictors of data disclosure (final models).
Finally, the results offer support for the following hypotheses: H1a (partially
supported for adolescents), H2a and H3a (for adults), H4a (partially supported for
adolescents and adults), H5a (for adults), H6a (for adults), H8a (for adolescents).
The results indicate that H7a should be rejected.
Predicting the application of privacy settings: Adolescents versus adults
The results reveal differences between adolescents and adults with regard to the
type and strength of predictors for the application of privacy settings.
Although adolescent females were more likely to apply privacy settings in order to
restrict access to profile data, gender was not a significant predictor for the
information-control measures used by adults. Interestingly, we also found that
teenagers become less inclined to restrict access to their profiles as they age, while
older adults proved more likely to apply stricter privacy settings.
Adolescents using SNS to connect with friends with whom they had lost contact,
those who were eager to meet new people online and those using SNS to converse
with schoolmates were more inclined to relax their privacy settings. Adults using
SNS to make new acquaintances, find a partner and contact distant friends were
more likely to open their profiles. In this case as well, increased frequency of SNS
usage apparently makes adults more inclined to open their profiles to a broader
Adults concerned about contact-related risks tend to place greater restrictions on
access to their profile data. The results further reveal similarities between
adolescents and adults with regard to the influence of privacy concern, with greater
privacy concerns leading to stricter privacy settings.
The final model (see Table 2) accounted for more variance for teenagers
: 24%) than for adults (adjusted R2
Table 2. Predictors of the application of privacy settings (final models).
In short, our analyses provide support for H1b (for teenagers), H2b (for adults),
H3b (for adults), H4b, H6b and H7b (for adults). The results indicate that H5b and
H8b should be rejected.
Although research and policy have devoted extensive attention to possible risks
related to the disclosure of personal data, few comparisons have been made
between adolescents and adults with regard to SNS disclosure and the application
of privacy settings (Christofides et al., 2011). The overarching goal of the present
study is therefore to explore and compare possible predictors of both privacy-
management strategies between adolescents and adults.
In contrast to the results of previous studies (e.g. Christofides et al., 2011; Joinson,
2008), gender was not a significant predictor of privacy settings use in our adult
subsample. Our results do show, however, that female adolescents were more
protective of their online privacy by disclosing less information and by placing
greater restrictions on access to their profiles. The latter is in line with the findings
of Christofides and colleagues (2011) concerning adolescents‟ use of privacy
settings. As suggested by Staksrud and Livingstone (2009), teenage boys
apparently pay less attention to online risks than teenage girls do. This result could
be explained in part by the fact that teenage girls report that their parents impose
relatively more rules regarding the disclosure of personal information than do boys
(81% versus 74%) (Livingstone et al., 2011a). Teenage girls could thus be more
sensitized about online privacy protection.
Interestingly, our results indicate that adolescents tend to open their profiles as
they age, while an opposite relationship between age and profile access was
observed among adults. This result could be explained in part by the way in which
teenagers develop during adolescence. Throughout this period, teenagers find it
increasingly important to be in contact with their peers (Brown & Klute, 2003). In
order to optimize their chances of being contacted by their peers, therefore,
adolescents could deliberately foster access to their profiles by applying more
lenient privacy settings.
Conversely, older adults are more inclined to restrict access to their profiles, as
privacy-related concerns have been found to increase with age (Fox et al., 2000)
and senior citizens using the Internet have been found to be more sensitive to
privacy than younger adults are (Zukowski & Brown, 2007).
Our results identify relational motives as important predictors of both data
disclosure and the application of privacy settings. According to our analyses,
adolescents and adults who use SNS to contact their schoolmates and colleagues
are more likely to disclose data on SNS. In this context as well, bonding with
existing offline contacts is associated with higher levels of self-disclosure. As
observed by Burke and colleagues (2010), active contributions to SNS and direct
communication can enhance the social capital of users.
The desire to meet new people online and to contact distant friends stimulates both
adolescents and adults to open their profiles. This need for bridging social capital
could encourage SNS users to increase their searchability and accessibility by
relaxing their privacy settings in order to lower the threshold for contact. However,
adults motivated to use SNS in order to search for a partner are inclined to disclose
more information and to relax their privacy settings more than other adult users
are. One possible explanation is that increased self-disclosure leads to greater
perceived relational success (Gibbs et al., 2006).
Another finding of the present study is that trust in other SNS users has a positive
influence on the personal data disclosure of adults. This finding is in line with
previous research among adults (Dwyer et al., 2007; Christofides et al., 2009; Utz
& Kramer, 2009). It could be that trust reduces the risks perceived in relation to
the disclosure of private information (Metzger, 2004). Nevertheless, trust levels
were found to be very low among both adolescents and adults, thus suggesting an
overall critical attitude towards, amongst others, information posted by others on
In contrast, our results indicate that privacy-related concerns affect the disclosure
and profile-access restrictions of adults, while such concerns affect only the
application of privacy settings by adolescents. This contrasting result suggests
possible differences between the ways in which adolescents and adults perceive
privacy and related concerns. While adolescents are more likely to communicate
certain types of personal data freely, their sensitivity to privacy is more likely to
focus on who is to have access to these data (Livingstone, 2008). Adults were
found to be more concerned about the contact-related risks of SNS, and this
influenced their profile-access management as well. In summary, the results
indicate that adolescents were less concerned about SNS-related contact risks.
Moreover, this concern did not influence their level of disclosure and profile-access
In line with previous studies, the susceptibility of adolescents to peer influence
encourages them to disclose more. Teenagers who are more sensitive to feedback
from their peers could be encouraged to disclose more, which in turn generates
feedback (Christofides, Muise & Desmarais, 2009).
One of the central findings of this study is that, in addition to disclosing more
personal data than adults do, adolescents also apply less restrictive privacy settings
to their data, thus corroborating the findings reported by Christofides and
colleagues (2011). One possible explanation for this finding could be related to
adolescents‟ development. Adolescence is a life stage in which individuals discover
and try to understand who they are as individuals, and in which they develop a
coherent sense of self, including gender, sexual, social and cultural facets. Although
identity changes can occur throughout the lifespan, adolescence is the first life
stage in which individuals become more self-conscious and capable of appreciating
potential changes and imagining possible selves (Steinberg, 2011). During this
process of identity development, adolescents strive to gain more autonomy,
especially from their parents.
As the influence of parents decreases, however, peers become increasingly
important. Among peers, adolescents develop a broader range of relationships,
including close friendships and intimacy with romantic partners (Steinberg, 2011;
Subrahmanyam & Smahel, 2011). In no other period of life is the need for social
interaction, identity experimentation and peer feedback as important as it is during
adolescence (Harter, 1999). The activities of adolescents on SNS can play an
important role in this regard. More specifically, SNS offer adolescents the
opportunity to choose how they wish to present themselves in words and pictures.
The ability to manage self-presentation enhances individuation (Schmitt et al.,
2008) and facilitates further self-disclosure (Valkenburg & Peter, 2009), thereby
leading to reciprocity and closer relationships (Burhmeister & Prager, 1995). The
need to belong and the need for popularity, which are particularly important during
adolescence (Santor et al., 2000), have been positively associated with online self-
disclosure (Christofides et al., 2009).
In addition to the possibility of managing self-presentation, SNS offer adolescents
the possibility of controlling the users with whom they will share specific
information, as well as to contact distant friends and engage in online contact with
other users who share the same interests or interrogations. During this important
life stage, the opportunities offered by SNS may partially explain the engagement
of adolescents in SNS and, more specifically, their greater inclination to disclose
sensitive information to peers. Moreover, given their involvement in identity
experimentation and self-reflection, adolescents could be more inclined than adults
are to share and try out facets of their personalities that they would like to explore
or to which they aspire to assume (Subrahmanyam & Smahel, 2011).
The present study is subject to several important limitations. First, the data were
drawn from a convenience sample, although respondents were not primed to
privacy issues prior to their participation. Second, the significance of several
independent variables approached the threshold level. Third, the variables
addressed in this study explained only 12% of the variance in the SNS disclosure of
adolescents and 16% of adults‟ data disclosure, and they explained a relatively
small portion of the variance in the application of privacy settings by adolescents
(24%) and adults (22%). A large portion of the variance in both dependent
variables thus remains unexplained. The inclusion of additional psychological
constructs (e.g. personality traits, self-esteem and need for popularity) may help to
explain a greater portion of the variance. Additional factors that could explain
differences in online profile-access management include the level of knowledge that
users have regarding privacy settings and their level of self-efficacy with regard to
protecting their privacy online.
The most important results of this study have several implications. Some of the
predictors could be used to inspire further awareness-raising efforts focusing on
SNS users. Privacy-related concerns emerged as one of the most important
predictors of the application of privacy settings by both adolescents and adults, in
addition to predicting disclosure by adults. Whereas concern about contact-related
risks influenced adults to restrict their profile audiences, such concerns had no
effect on the privacy-management strategies of adolescents. Concerns about
contact risks could therefore be triggered in order to encourage adults to make
greater use of their privacy settings.
For both adolescents and adults, sensitizing campaigns could be deployed to
increase concern about privacy issues, thus encouraging both groups to become
more conscious about audience management on SNS. We recommend that such
sensitizing initiatives should be accompanied by practical training on how users can
deploy the complex and increasingly granular privacy settings in order to enhance
the protection of their online profiles. Such training is apparently necessary, as a
recent study found that Internet users (both adolescent and adult) can experience
difficulties finding and understanding information about privacy settings on most
SNS (Donoso, 2011). Moreover, given that self-reported competence in the
application of privacy settings increases with age (Livingstone et al., 2011a), young
SNS users may be more vulnerable due to their broadly accessible profiles.
In 2009, the major SNS providers committed themselves to implementing the Safer
Social Networking Principles, in addition to other actions, including setting the
profiles of minors to private by default. Since that time, however, only a few
providers have actually honored their pledge (Donoso, 2011). The reasons for this
lack of commitment call for thorough investigation; the implementation of all
principles should be subjected to further close monitoring, and possible
supplementary policy initiatives should be explored.
Moreover, awareness-raising efforts targeted at adolescents, parents and teachers
should be strengthened. Although adolescents are increasingly confronted with
education and awareness-raising efforts regarding e-safety, these programmes
often focus on online predators, cyberbullying and other contact-related risks
(Hoofnagele et al., 2010). Both adolescents and adults should be made aware that
data disclosure has been related to increased likelihood of being confronted with
these risks (e.g. Palfrey, 2008; Walrave & Heirman, 2011; Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008).
It has further been shown that adolescents who have had negative experiences on
SNS are almost twice as likely as other users are to have public profiles (Lenhart et
al., 2011). For this reason, deeper reflection on the disclosure of personal data, and
especially the management of access to profile data, could be promoted as a
strategy for possibly reducing online risks while enjoying the contact and other
opportunities offered by SNS.
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Department of Communication Studies
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Appendix : Factor analyses of scales