Study: Young adults savvy about managing online reputations

CHICAGO -- What's that? A young college grad lecturing her elders about online privacy?

It might go against conventional wisdom, but a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project is adding fuel to the argument that young people are fast becoming the gurus of online reputation management, especially when it comes to social networking sites.

Among other things, the study found that they are most likely to limit personal information online -- and the least likely to trust free online services ranging from Facebook to LinkedIn and MySpace.

Marlene McManus, 21, is among those young adults. On the job hunt since graduating from Clark University in Massachusetts, she has been "scouring" her Facebook page, removing photos that contain beer cups and any other signs of college exploits. She has also dropped Twitter.

"I have to present a public face that doesn't have the potential to hurt my image," McManus said.

She has seen otherwise upstanding adults, well past their 20s, sharing compromising photos and questionable rants with too many people online. "I get embarrassed for these people and sometimes just want to shake them," she said.

In this instance, adults over age 30 might do well to listen.

The Pew study and a mounting body of new research shows that the very generation accused of sharing too much information online is leading the pack in online privacy.

The Pew study found, for instance, that social networkers ages 18 to 29 were the most likely to change the privacy settings on their profiles to limit what they share with others online. Seventy-one percent did so, compared with 55 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds. About two-thirds of all social networkers who were surveyed said they have tightened security settings.

The survey also determined that:

About half of 18- to 29-year-olds have deleted comments that others have made on their profile compared with 29 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 26 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds. The numbers were similar for social networkers who removed their names from photos that were tagged to identify them.

Asked how much they can trust social networking sites, 28 percent of the youngest adults surveyed said "never" compared with a fifth of 30- to 49-year-olds and 14 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds.

The Pew report, which was released Thursday, was compiled from telephone interviews of 2,253 adults conducted by Princeton Survey Research International from Aug. 18 to Sept. 14. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.3 percentage points.

Mary Madden, a Pew researcher and the study's lead author, says the findings partly reflect the fact that young people have been using social networking longer than their elders, making them more experienced in dealing with its intricacies.

But she says young people are also at a point in their lives where, like McManus, they're looking for work and starting to develop a name for themselves.

The study also found that a quarter of online adults said their employers now have policies about how they portray themselves online.

"Young adults have, in many ways, been forced to become experts in their own form of social revision," Madden said.

They're also an extremely "brand-conscious" generation, says Fred Stutzman, a doctoral candidate at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina who co-founded, a free online identity management service that he now uses as a research project.

"Increasingly, it's the advice that young people get from counselors and elsewhere: 'You need to have your own brand, and you have to watch that brand,'" Stutzman said.

He jokes that older people don't care as much because "if you've got a pension, you can pretty much say what you want."

There might be a bit of truth to that. The older you get, the less you have to worry about applying to college and attempting to move up the career ladder.

Stefanie Juell, 28, of Westchester County, N.Y., has become increasingly aware of that. So she recently opened an extra Facebook account after her supervisor and people she had met through work started to friend her on her personal account.

"You don't exactly want to reject your supervisor," she said. "Nor do you want him or her to see everything that your friends write on your wall or the pictures that people tag of you."

So now, she uses her professional Facebook account for her job in alumni relations at a small liberal arts college.

In the evening, she shifts to her long-standing personal Facebook account, which has its security set as tightly as possible.

"It's important to separate and to maintain a work-life balance," she said.