It’s time we stopped calling Millennials “dumb” about data privacy

Millennials and privacyIf Millennials think the world revolves around them, it’s not hard to see why.

The Millennial generation – which includes anyone born between 1980 and 1999 – is the biggest in history. In the US alone, there are 80 million of them – about 25% of the total population.

Millennials are also the most educated and they adopt new technologies at a higher rate than any previous generation – making them a very attractive demographic for businesses from Apple to Uber.

According to a US Chamber of Commerce Foundation research review, which says Millennials are “likely the most studied generation to date,” this generation is also optimistic, entrepreneurial and “masters of self-expression.”

Yet, despite these admirable qualities, Millennials get a bad rap.

Typing the phrase “Millennials are” into Google brings up suggested search terms from popular searches associated with the phrase – and they are not flattering: apparently, many people think Millennials are “lazy,” “stupid,” or simply “the worst.”

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Among the impressions people have of Millennials is that they are self-obsessed, addicted to oversharing on social media, and clueless when it comes to privacy online.

The headline from a recent USA Today article about a study of the digital lives of Millennials – “Millennials indifferent about digital privacy” – would seem to back up those stereotypes.

Except the study data doesn’t show that at all: two-thirds of Millennials are concerned about online privacy.

One of the Millennials quoted in the USA Today story, an attorney named Kristen Lim, unwraps the stereotype this way:

I think there's this perception that Millennials don’t care about privacy because we’re always on Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook talking about our lives with the world. But that's not about privacy, that's about a sense of self.

But what do Millennials think about all the data those social media companies and online merchants are collecting about them?

They’re not as comfortable with it as you might think.

Another Millennial quoted by USA Today, 26-year-old temp worker Lydia Sass-Basedow, said she is “mindful” of what she posts online and is careful with her privacy settings and whom she is friends with on social media.

Millennials are also fighting back against brands that over-market to them in concrete ways, like blocking phone numbers, unsubscribing from email lists, or uninstalling apps that spam them with push notifications, according to the marketing analytics and customer loyalty firm Aimia.

Millennials are the most likely group to permanently disengage with companies that send high volumes of generic email communications – as one marketing publication put it, “Millennials will ditch brands that spam them.”

In a sense, Millennials are the guinea pigs in the grand experiment of our information age.

They’ve been at the forefront of adopting social media and smartphones, and even the oldest Millennials were immersed in the internet by the time they left their teens. The youngest have never known a world without “Google” as a verb.

Because online connections to friends and even strangers via apps and community platforms comes naturally to them, some Millennials have very different attitudes about online privacy than their parents in the Baby Boomer generation and older siblings in Generation X.

But let’s not assume people are cavalier about data privacy just because they are willing to give up some privacy in exchange for convenience or tailored online experiences.

Adults of all ages are increasingly wary of data collection by companies and governments – but few believe they have control over it.

Many of us feel resigned to giving up our data because we feel powerless over it, says Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, and author of a study called “The Tradeoff Fallacy.”

For some services, disengaging doesn’t feel like an option – in a survey we conducted on Naked Security, we found that not many people want to quit Facebook, despite their privacy concerns, for fear of losing valuable connections with friends and family.

Interestingly, it’s younger people who are the ones abandoning Facebook in favor of other social networks like Instagram (which is actually owned by Facebook) – it won’t protect them from Facebook having their data, but it at least gives them more privacy from their Facebook-using parents.

Rather than snarking on them, maybe we should be looking for lessons from how Millennials are dealing with the privacy dilemma.

Tips for better digital privacy

If you think there’s nothing you can do to protect your privacy from data collectors, that’s just not true. Here are some of our top resources for better online privacy.

Image of girl with bar code on her neck courtesy of Shutterstock.