Most Facebook Users Don’t Understand Privacy Settings

Internet users flock to social media networks to stay in touch with friends and family by sharing messages, photos and more. But when it comes to sharing personal information on these public sites, users expect to be able to share privately with their friends and circles.

A study from online sharing platform Posterous conducted by Harris Interactive found the majority of US social network users felt family and personal photos were for private sharing. Expectations for privately sharing status updates and photos of friends were slightly more lenient.

Expectations vary slightly across social networking sites, however; users were typically less demanding of privacy on Facebook compared to other sites, such as Google+. One reason for the slight difference could be the familiarity of Facebook compared to a newer site like Google+ that users are still learning how to operate. In addition, Google+ in particular was billed as the answer to selective sharing, with its Circles highlighted much more strongly than Facebook’s analogous features.

Elements that Are Important to Share Privately Online According to US Social Network Users, by Social Network, Oct 2011 (% of respondents)

Additional findings from an October 2011 USA Today and Gallup Poll support the theory that site familiarity and usage might relate to a user’s comfort for their privacy. For instance, 39% of US Facebook users who used the social networking site less than once a week were very concerned about their privacy, compared to only 26% of users who logged in daily.

US Facebook Users Who Are “Very Concerned” with Privacy on Facebook, by Frequency of Use, Oct 2011 (% of respondents)

One possibility is that greater privacy concerns lead to less frequent use of these social networking sites—or that greater usage leads to greater familiarity and comfort.

But one should not mistake comfort with online privacy on sites such as Facebook for an understanding of privacy controls. In regard to how well US social network users believe they understand Facebook’s privacy settings, Posterous found less than a third (32%) felt they had a complete understanding of such controls.

US Facebook Users Who Feel They Completely Understand Facebook

Clearly, there is room to grow here, but data from National Security Cyber Alliance (NSCA) and McAfee found 21% of US internet users were either unsure of when they last changed their social network privacy and security settings or admitted to having never done so. In comparison, 44% said they had updated their settings within the last month or last week.

Last Time US Internet Users Changed Their Social Network Privacy and Security Account Settings, Nov 2011 (% of respondents)

NCSA and McAfee also found 46% of respondents said they had altered their social media network usage in response to security concerns, whereas 50% said they had not. It is worth watching these percentages closely in the coming months as the online privacy debate continues to heat up, likely forcing social networks to become more transparent about their privacy settings.


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