Young adults’ privacy perceptions associated to their practices and uses of social network sites. The privacy paradox revisited.

Mary Jane Kwok Choon
School of Medias, Université du Québec à Montréal
October, 2016
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I hold a PhD degree in Communication and is a researcher at the Inter-university Research Centre in Information, Communication and Society.


This dissertation provides an analysis of young adults’ relationships to privacy
through a study of their uses of social network sites (SNS), as well as their
privacy practices and perceptions.
Findings show that young adults are using Facebook to practice social
surveillance, update status, contribute to discussions in relation to academic
group work, and communicate with peers via the Facebook chat. On Twitter, they
follow the news, mimic micro-celebrity practices and send signals to their friends.
Self-exposure is associated to forms of visibility as recognition. Through this
process, emotional, social and material benefits are obtained. Young adults want
to build up bridging and bonding social capital while using SNS. They are also
trying to negotiate privacy. They alternate between self-exposure and
concealment of personal information. Various privacy strategies are mobilized
during social interactions : social steganography, deletion of Facebook friends
from contact lists, sending “private” messages on Facebook chat, restriction of
Facebook’s profiles to friends only and self-censorship. Our informants invest
more efforts in negotiating privacy during social interactions and care less about
institutional privacy. In consequence, SNS profiles were listed on external search
engines, applications had access to personal information via their Facebook
friends and profile pictures were made public by default. Discourses describing
privacy policies and terms of service are deemed incomprehensible.
Publicly private and context are the concepts around which revolve users’ privacy
perceptions. SNS are considered as spaces within which they can disclose
“private” and “public” information in front of an audience composed of friends,
contacts and strangers. Users can also experience collisions and collusions of
context. Contextual integrity is the privacy norm associated to practices on
Facebook while “negotiated transparency” is the one related to Twitter practices.
To define what they understand as “public” and “private”, young adults take into
consideration the following criteria : access to SNS profiles, privacy risks, control
over the regulation of boundaries between the “private” and the “public”, and the
publication of information in context, the relational context, the “public” and
“private” character of online spaces and the nature of information. Privacy
protection in relation to Facebook and Twitter uses is understood as a protection
against surveillance, and a control over the regulation of boundaries as well as
the publication of information in context. Privacy allows freedom of expression, is
also important for the development of relationships and autonomy. In an offline
context, privacy is seen as a protection of one’s intimacy. However, young adults did not express the wish to have a control over the use of information by
institutions and third parties.
The relationship that users have vis-à-vis privacy is complex and paradoxical.
The desire of self-exposure is intrinsically linked to the need to protect one’s
privacy. In comparison to past research, this dissertation emphasizes on the
various factors that shape this paradoxical relationship. The factors are a
perception of control over the publication of information in context, a form of
misplaced trust in these SNS, the low visibility of institutional surveillance
practices in the context of use, a limited knowledge of the sites operating modes,
including a restricted knowledge of institutional surveillance practices and privacy
policies, architectural changes, thin social trust in their Facebook friends and
ontological security. Users are interiorizing voluntarily and involuntarily
surveillance to obtain various benefits. A form of tyranny is linked to privacy. On
one side, young adults are engaging in self-exposure and adhering to the norm
of showing off in order to obtain immediate benefits and for future ones. On the
other side, the exercise of the panoptic sort on SNS and visibility mechanisms
are employed to collect personal information efficiently.
Finally, this dissertation displaces the attention from the pair ‘risk-opportunities’
towards an analysis of the complex relationships between visibility, surveillance,
privacy and users’ autonomy, in order to understand self-exposure on SNS.
Young adults don’t have a profound knowledge of the technology operating
modes. This finding does not correspond to the representations that are usually
associated to digital natives. They are not unaware of the dangers associated to
social network sites use and exhibiting themselves online as they are being
depicted through techno-pessimistic discourses in the medias. Instead, the low
visibility of architectural changes and surveillance practices bypass the protection
of privacy. We acknowledge the existence of tensions between the three logics of
action: utilitarian, integration and reflexive, which are themselves shaped by the
logics of these communication networks. Therefore, we recommend the
development of fairer information practices. It is also important to foster a critical
media education at an adult age, considering the speed at which these sites are
developing and the fact that most users have low technical skills.
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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.