But why do people disclose personal information on the Internet?
One answer may lie in a study undertaken in 1995, which found that the Internet provided an ideal space for self-exploration and redefinition of identity. It’s also been suggested that the Internet may facilitate accepting facets of one’s identity that were suppressed or that only manifest online (McKenna KYA, Bargh JA., 1998).
A key point is that social networks allow people to present themselves in a certain way to maintain relationships (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). For example, choosing a certain method of self-presentation or self-disclosure can be seen as a method to initiate the formation of relationships (Derlega, Metts, Petronio, & Margulis, 1993). At the same time, users can read others’ opinions and thoughts, provide feedback and develop an interaction with them. In this way, social network users manage to gain a degree of popularity they may not have been able to attain in real life: more personal information shared on social networks leads to more friends, more comments, more communication, and, ultimately, more admiration.
In order to find out more about the psychological underpinnings of personal information sharing with virtual friends, a survey was conducted in which 543 persons were questioned about this sensitive aspect. The respondents’ age range was 18-65 years (18-25 years- 22%; 26-35 years- 38%; 36-50 years- 22%; 50-65 years- 18%), and they were all part of at least one social network, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, etc.
99% of them shared personal information with their virtual friends: real name, pictures of themselves and of their children (78%), address (75%), phone number (38%), company they work for (84%). Moreover, some respondents even communicated with their virtual friends about their activities at the moment (87%) and about their interests (57%).
There were no differences about the information disclosed as a function of age, except for the fact that the first two age categories (18-35 years) were more actively involved in the discussions than the other two categories (average number of messages: 2.3 vs. 0.5 per day).
When asked whether they are afraid that disclosing this kind of information can put them at risk, 89% of respondents admitted that they never thought the personal information they shared with their virtual friends can affect them in a negative way. For example, none of them suspected that their children’ pictures can be snatched and posted on child-porn sites. 67% believed that publishing their holiday photos next to their home address could attract thieves, but they admitted that they couldn’t refrain from sharing such photos because they wanted their virtual friends to admire them, and, why not, even challenge them to display theirs.
Is educating users about personal data sharing a useless effort?
Different researches found a discrepancy between privacy concerns and actual privacy settings (Barnes, 2006). For example, Gross and Acquisti (2005) examined the Facebook profiles of more than 4,000 students and observed that only a small percentage had changed the default privacy settings. Thelwall (2008) investigated more than 20,000 MySpace profiles and found that only 27% were set to private. While security experts insist on educating users and on recommending them to be careful when disclosing their personal information on Internet, it seems that human nature and different perceptions as to the meaning of “personal information” prove to be more powerful than any advice.
Despite all temptations, a common sense rule may save users a lot of trouble. Before posting something about yourself or about your family on Internet, ask yourself: have you or would you ever disclose this kind of information to a stranger, in real life? If the answer is NO, than you’d better think twice before you send it out into a world where it can be put to countless illicit uses and, more importantly, from which you’ll never be able to completely erase it.
Barnes, S. (2006). A privacy paradox: Social networking in the United States, http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1394/1312
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. doi:10.1037\0033-2909.117.3.49
Derlega, V. J., Metts, S., Petronio, S., & Margulis, S. T. (1993). Self-Disclosure. Newbury Park, CA: Sage
Gross, R., & Acquisti A. (2005). Information revelation and privacy in online social networks. Alexandria, VA. ACM Workshop on privacy in the Electronic Society
McKenna, K.Y.A.; Bargh, J.A. Coming out in the age of the Internet: identity ‘demarginalization’ through virtual group participation. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 1998; 75:681–94.
Thelwall, M. (2008). Social networks, gender, and friending: An analysis of MySpace member profiles. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 59, 1321-1330
Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen. Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.