In brief Gen Z and Privacy
- The accelerating pace of change in technology makes it hard to compare generational attitudes to data privacy on a like-for-like basis: it’s impossible to strip out age effects by comparing current young people with previous generations of young people, because the context has changed so much.
- But it does seem as though Gen Z are slightly less concerned about their online privacy than older groups: globally, 65% of Gen Z report being concerned about what data companies are collecting about them when they go online, compared with 73% of Millennials, 77% of Gen X and 76% of Baby Boomers.
- Mirroring this, younger people are slightly happier than older groups to share data with companies in return for the personalised services and products they have grown used to. In emerging markets, 56% of 16-24 year olds are happy to do this, compared with 51% of 25-34 year olds, and in established markets, 45% 16-24 year olds are happy to do this, compared with 42% of 25-34 year olds.
- But these differences are not huge (as you will sometimes see claimed), and they will be due to a combination of effects, including the fact that the type of activities younger groups mostly engage in online may involve less sensitive (for example, financial) data, coupled with a somewhat greater understanding of how to protect themselves.
- For example, 18-29 year olds in the US are more likely than older adults to say they have paid attention to privacy issues, and 49% of them say they have taken action by disabling cookies on their browser compared with 41% of 30-49 year olds.
- However, Gen Z are actually slightly more concerned than older generations about what is done with information that governments collect about them: 64% of Gen Z are worried, compared with 57% of Baby Boomers.
THE IMPLICATIONS AND THE FUTURE
Balancing data privacy and the opportunities of data analytics
There is an expectation among the youngest generation of consumers that brands should be able to anticipate their needs and provide useful suggestions to make their shopping and service experiences more personalised and efficient.
However, brands that succeed in this space also need to be transparent about their practices. Consumers should easily understand a) what data is being collected, b) for what purpose it will be used, and c) what benefit it will yield them. In the event of a data breach, this transparency should extend to swift admissions and rectification. Of course, this applies to all generations, but Gen Z in particular have grown up with a sense of the value of their data, reinforced by events and legislation: a concept that can seem quite alien to older groups will be native to this cohort.
The future of data regulation – and data literacy
There is increasing pressure on governments to update their regulations regarding the data privacy of their citizens, which we recently saw being actioned in the EU, with the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming into effect in May 2018. New regulations and other interventions from governments seem set to continue to grow: very public shocks like the unauthorised use of the records of 87 million Facebook users by political analysts Cambridge Analytica seem highly unlikely to be the last or only examples of perceived breaches of trust.
Teaching internet and data literacy in schools
In October 2017, Italy rolled out a pilot programme across 8,000 schools for children to increase online news literacy. The programme is mainly aimed at teaching students to understand whether news articles are reliable, but also includes teaching them how to understand how their ‘likes’ on Facebook are monetised.
In the UK, the Information Commissioner has given guidance for schools on lesson plans to incorporate data privacy in their curriculum – though as of yet, there are only a few cases where it has been taught.104
In June 2017, several educational organisations in Europe organised a roundtable discussion around GDPR and children’s rights, and suggested that children should be formally taught about data protection by a certain age.105
But there is only so much that can be achieved through regulation, given the variety of situations and the accelerating speed of technology. They therefore must also be coupled with a solid education for young people on the importance of data privacy, to ensure that tech-enabled children, who are somewhat more relaxed about sharing their data, are safe online. This is part of a growing movement, where broader digital literacy is essential for both individuals and society, as seen in trends like Italy piloting an internet news literacy programme as part of its school curriculum.106
More opportunities for brands to connect with Gen Z
But this isn’t just about brands managing perceived threats and ensuring they don’t betray trust: there are opportunities for engagement, if done well. Brands are starting to tap into Gen Z’s comfort with sharing particular data online by encouraging customers to gear their self-expression to support campaigns – for example, by incentivising them to share photos of how they use the brand’s products, in return for being featured on the brand’s website and social platforms.
Brands who have successfully run such user-generated content campaigns include Forever 21, Madwell and Disney. Forever 21 asked customers to upload their favourite summer outfits from the brand, which, as well as giving brand wearers the chance to show off their style, also successfully advertised to other teens – a group that tends to value real, everyday people in advertising.107
Disney, meanwhile, combined Gen Z’s love of sharing on social platforms with their enthusiasm for charitable contributions, by donating $5 to Make-a-Wish for every photo uploaded by users wearing Micky Mouse ears and using the hashtag ‘#shareyourears’. The campaign raised $1million, which Disney doubled due to the “overwhelming outpouring of support”.108
More than any other area, exploring attitudes and behaviour around technology across generations means we have to make do with snapshots: the technology and context change too quickly to be able to look back and measure Gen Z against Millennials when they were the same age. While this means we need to be particularly careful in ascribing differences to cohort characteristics (as opposed to Gen Z just being younger), this can still provide some useful clues to the direction they’re going.
For example, Gen Z do report feeling less concerned than older age groups when it comes to what data companies are collecting about them when they go online: globally, 65% of Gen Z report feeling concerned, compared with 70% of Millennials, 72% of Gen X and 73% of Baby Boomers.109
However, this could be a very clear case of an age effect: younger groups will be doing different things online, where there is less perceived risk from data profiling, or they have just considered the risks less as yet – and there are indications that this might be the case from a more detailed look within Gen Z. This shows that 11-16s in particular are far less concerned than the older members of Gen Z: only 37% of the youngest age group are concerned about companies collecting their data, compared with 72% of 17-22s.110
However, there is a much clearer message when it comes to government collecting online data. When we look at Gen Z overall, we can see they are actually more concerned than some other generations: 64% of Gen Z are worried, compared with 60% of Millennials and 57% of Baby Boomers – although Gen X have the highest level of concern, at 65%.111
Teens do take privacy settings seriously
Gen Z’s immersion in technology means they are familiar with how to use it, and this seems to include a greater understanding of how to set their privacy levels on social accounts, and other online platforms, so that they only share their information and activities how they want to.112
For example, 18-29 year olds in the US are more likely than older adults to say they have paid attention to privacy issues, and 49% say they have taken action by disabling cookies on their browser, compared with 41% of 30-49 year olds. Similarly, 41% of 18-29 year olds have used a temporary username or email address, compared with 25% of 30-49 year olds.113
Gen Z in the US are also more likely than older generations to have provided fake information to companies online, as well as other forms of protective action: 33% of Gen Z have adjusted the privacy settings on their phone, compared with just 25% of Millennials and Gen X, while 19% have provided fake information to companies, compared with 13% of Millennials.114
Gen Z also update their private social channels, including Snapchat, more often than their public ‘broadcast’ channels, such as Twitter and Facebook. While we cannot ascribe this wholly to keeping a keener eye on privacy (rather than the different appeals of the platforms), the differences are stark: 43% of Gen Z update on their private social channels every day, compared with just 21% on public channels, and 55% agree with the statement “I am more likely to share content via a messaging app than on my newsfeed”.115 This is more pronounced among Gen Z than other generations: 18-24 year olds in the US use all channels except Facebook more than older age groups, but the one they use more than any other is the private channel of Snapchat: 78% of Gen Z use this, compared with 54% of 25-29 year olds, while it is lower still for older groups.116 In Australia, of 8-17 year olds who use social media, 61% have their main account as private, and 21% as partially private.117
As doubtless was the case for previous generations of young, just in different ways, they can be secretive and just plain deceptive with their parents too: 60% of US internet users aged 13-17 have created an online account that they believe their parents are unaware of. And they’re often right: only 28% of parents surveyed suspect their teens have secret accounts.118
It is not true, either, that Gen Z don’t worry about the consequences of a data breach: 36% of US 13-17 year olds are very concerned about having a photo or video shared that they wanted to keep private, and 39% about someone sharing personal information about them online. These are in line with the proportion of the concerns their parents hold for them, which are 34% and 42% respectively.119
It’s also worth remembering that not all adults are necessarily as careful as they need to be when it comes to data security: a full third of UK adults (16+) who buy things online don’t check to see if the site looks secure (padlock symbol or https) first.120 More than this, people are often woefully unaware of how they actually act, compared with how they report they act: an Ipsos survey of adults in 20 countries showed that despite nearly half of them stating that they were willing to pay for improved data privacy, only a quarter of the same people in the same survey said they had taken basic steps to strengthen their browser’s privacy settings.
Also, although a third of people insist that they always read terms and conditions or user agreements on websites, server-side surveys suggest that the real number is more like 1% – which is unsurprising given that some of these agreements can be over 30,000 words long, i.e. longer than Hamlet. One of many illustrative example of this is the 88% of people who ticked ‘agree’ to computer game retailer Gamestation, after the company changed their terms to include a clause giving the company the ‘non-transferable option to claim now and forever more your immortal soul’.121 There is no indication that Gen Z are particularly less likely to delude themselves that they’re more on top of privacy than they actually are.
Personalisation is expected
It’s a consistent picture of important but relatively small differences on attitudes to personalisation. Younger people are slightly happier than older groups to share data with companies in return for the personalised services and products they have grown used to. In emerging markets, 56% of 16-24 year olds are happy to do this, compared with 51% of 25-34 year olds, and in established markets, 45% 16-24 year olds are happy to do this, compared with 42% of 25-34 year olds.122
They are also slightly more trusting of retailers to use their data appropriately compared with other generations. In established markets, 45% of Gen Z trust retailers, compared with 38% of Millennials, 36% of Gen X, and 32% of Baby Boomers. They are not so far ahead of older age groups in emerging markets, perhaps reflecting a difference in data privacy concerns regionally: 44% of Millennials, 39% Gen X, and 36% of Baby Boomers.123
However, Gen Z do seem more attracted to the new approaches to speed and tailoring of services that maybe seem intrusive to others: for example, 39% of 16-22 year olds in US would be more loyal to a brand that provides one-hour drone delivery, compared with just 22% of Millennials (23-37 year olds).124
FINAL THOUGHTS …
The constantly shifting data landscape and the way this changes how generations view the private or public nature of their online identities is one of the key drivers that will shape this cohort of young. Ironically, the effects are also some of the hardest to unpick – precisely because it is changing so quickly.
But the available data makes clear that we’re seeing neither a headlong rush into a completely shared, public life – nor a retreat to complete privacy and universal encryption. The picture is of a generation that is a bit more open to the benefits of being open, a bit more savvy about keeping things private when they want to, and a bit more aware of the value of their own data. This means that the opportunity to engage is still very much there and growing, but only for those who do it well and provide benefits that people value, rather than convenience for businesses or governments.
And as with all generations of young before them, the truly new and apparently outlandish, such as drone delivery, hold significantly less fear for this group, and they’ll continue to help normalise these innovations for the rest of us, if they think they’re of value.