A "digital divide" exists in Canada between young people who see information posted online as private and older people who see it differently, according to a study released Thursday at a privacy conference in Toronto.
Ryerson University professor Avner Levin, a keynote speaker at the Youth Privacy Online: Take Control, Make it Your Choice! conference, said in the study that young people have a notion of online privacy that is not shared by business managers and executives. He said the latter view all information posted online as public.
Levin said the difference in perception becomes an issue when young people enter the workforce.
If they have not taken steps to control access to their personal information online, he said, it can be viewed by older people who run organizations and who can use online social networks to check on employees or job applicants.
"A digital divide exists between how youth perceive network privacy and how the older generation of managers and executives perceive it," Levin said.
"Young people believe that information shared with their personal social networks is considered private as long as its dissemination is limited to their social network. Organizations, on the other hand, don't recognize this notion of network privacy. They believe that any information posted online is public and deserves no protection."
Comfortable posting personal info online
The study, entitled The Next Digital Divide: Online Social Network Privacy, found that people who use online social networks are comfortable posting large amounts of personal and private information on such sites as Facebook and MySpace but they see friends, family and work as three separate networks.
The study found that young people are concerned that personal information freely shared with friends may be viewed by family and managers who are not necessarily deemed friends.
It also found that students who are closer to joining the workforce full time are more concerned about their reputation and keeping their online electronic record clean, but they do not actually take steps to delete their postings or change privacy settings.
Young women, however, are more concerned about their privacy and reputation and more likely to take action to control access to their information.
According to the study, more than half of the young Canadians asked believe that work life and personal life should be kept separate. They also say they think it is inappropriate for employers to use online social networks to screen job applicants or keep tabs on employees.
Cyber networks can rival telephone as social tool
Levin says Facebook, used by millions of people, rivals the telephone as a means by which young people socialize.
For the study, Levin, director of the privacy and cyber crime institute at Ryerson University in Toronto, and a team of researchers interviewed more than 2,000 undergraduate students and 16 private- and public-sector executives about their policies, practices and perceptions of online social networks. The institute is part of Ryerson's Ted Rogers School of Business Management.
"What's particularly interesting is the attitude of young Canadians who are entering the workforce at a time when organizations are embarking on the replacement of the baby boomer generation," Levin said.
"Canadian employers are facing challenges in how to manage the use of online social networks with this new generation of employees."
Levin said none of the employers interviewed had specific policies on online social networks unless they had an incident in their workplaces involving one. He said all assumed their existing internet policies would cover potential problems.
"Those who recognized the potential business advantage that social networking technology brings saw the real challenge as how to discourage inappropriate behaviour while encouraging appropriate use," he said.
Levin spoke on a research panel of the conference, which was organized by the office of Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian to educate administrators, teachers and parents about the privacy risks of using online social networking sites.
Those risks include cyberbullying, identity theft, internet luring and endangering future job prospects.