Here's how we can help guide and protect digital natives as they move into adulthood
Gen Z — the generation born between 1997 and 2012 — is the first generation to grow up as true digital natives. They’ve never lived in a time without the internet; some have never lived in a time without YouTube. Phones have always been something you carry around with you, not something hooked to the wall at home or at work. And social media is just part of being a teenager.
But despite (or maybe because of) the fact that these young people grew up online, Gen Z doesn’t appear to be as concerned about online privacy and security as older generations. For example, according to a 2021 global survey conducted by Avast and YouGov, only 23% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 are concerned about their passwords being stolen or hacked, compared with 33% of people aged 65 and up.
In fact, the only area of online privacy and security that the youngest generation is more concerned about than the oldest generation is fear of their webcam being hacked, which comes in at 16% to 3%, respectively.
While there are undoubtedly many reasons for this — a deeper understanding of consequences as you age springs to mind — Rosie, 17, tells Avast that growing up online has made her less fearful, not more.
“I don't really care about my information getting out,” Rosie says. “As in, like, I’ll let Google and Instagram save my passwords for convenience. I haven’t really thought about it because I was raised with the internet in my life — it’s not a new thing for me. It’s just something I kind of grew into.”
There are, however, three things Rosie says she and her peers care about: social media hacks, nudes being exposed, and location sharing. These three areas, perhaps unsurprisingly, encompass the ways that Gen Z uses the internet most. For example, 65% of people aged 18 to 24 use social media “multiple times per day” and 78% go on social media at least once per day, according to the Avast survey. For comparison, only 36% of people aged 65 and up use social media multiple times per day.
One privacy measure Rosie takes is the creation of “finsta,” which is a portmanteau for “fake Instagram” that’s not associated with her real name. Finstas are popular with Gen Z because they create a space in which young people can post more personal photos without worrying about parents or teachers or people they don’t like seeing them.
“It’s a more private platform, but still being public I guess,” Rosie says. “Which is kind of a contradictory thing. People still want attention but don’t want a bunch of people seeing it.”
But while finstas are for hiding from parents or peers she doesn’t like, Rosie says she knows her finsta won’t protect her from the internet at large. When asked if she knows the phrase “the internet is forever,” Rosie says “I honestly don’t think about it because it makes me scared.”
"I just don’t think about it, even though I realize that everything I post is going to be out there forever,” she continues. “I think a lot of people my age know that but it’s kind of an old person saying.”
When it comes to data tracking and collection by websites and corporations, Rosie’s not too concerned about big companies like Google collecting her personal information. The only thing she’s strict about regulating is location data, which she’ll “definitely say no to, unless it’s a Google Maps thing."
“I’d rather have ads for makeup than horror movies,” she says. “When I truly think about it, it is a little creepy. But not creepy enough to do anything about it.”
Lauren, 22, is more upset by data tracking than Rosie is. She tells Avast that the experience of seeing an ad on social media after talking about the product with a friend is not just invasive, but disturbing.
“It genuinely makes me feel sick,” Lauren says. “Like how do they know this?”
And while Rosie says she was never taught about online privacy and security in school — and she laughs when asked if her mom taught her about it — Lauren says her all girls school drilled online privacy into her from an early age.
“We were shown this scary simulator where a crazy person could take your picture and get all this information to stalk you,” she says. “After that, applying to colleges and then jobs I wanted to make sure my profiles were pretty private.”
For digital natives, then, “online privacy” appears to be more about privacy within their social and familial circles than about privacy from corporations, government, or cyber criminals. That makes sense when you consider how hard it can be to conceptualize an amorphous “other” knowing everything about you. It’s much easier to understand what it means if a “creepy stalker” has your info than what it means if the government or a corporation does.
But just because Gen Z isn’t as concerned about online privacy and security doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be. Cybercrime — from data breaches to phishing attacks to tech abuse — continues to increase steadily, year after year. In fact, the FBI reported a two-thirds increase in reported cybercrimes in 2020, compared with 2019. The digital world that Gen Z grew up in has as many dangers lurking around pixelated corners as the physical world.
Perhaps the most important reason why we as a society can work to protect children from these dangers is by promoting cyber literacy. Lauren’s experience speaks to the fact that in-school education does have an impact on this issue, even if the tactic she experienced sounds similar to some of the “scared straight” tactics used in outdated health education classes.
Avast’s own Be Safe Online program in the Czech Republic has helped educate over 3,000 schoolchildren, even leading to kids as young as 12 identifying internet scams and reporting them. It’s programs like this that will help guide and protect digital natives as they move into adulthood.