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Source: NewsWire

Posted on September 12, 2008

      Online social networking has revolutionized the way young Canadians communicate and share information with one another. Social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace have become the preferred way of communicating for many young Canadians. More than 90 per cent are members of Facebook and socialize on it regularly, a level of technological penetration that rivals the telephone.

      A recent study by Professor Avner Levin of Ryerson University explores the attitudes and perceptions of young social-networkers to privacy and security as well as the organizational policies, practices and attitudes of business managers and executives on the use of online social networks. Dr. Levin will present key findings of the research today at the Youth Privacy Online: Take Control, Make it Your Choice! conference sponsored by Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian at the Marriott Eaton Centre in Toronto.

      "A digital divide exits between how youth perceive network privacy and how the older generation of managers and executives perceive it," says Dr. Levin, co-author of the study, The Next Digital Divide: Online Social Network Privacy. "Young people believe that information shared with their personal social networks is considered private as long as its dissemination is limited to their social network. Organizations, on the other hand, don't recognize this notion of network privacy. They believe that any information posted online is public and deserves no protection."

      The study found that while online social networkers are comfortable posting large amounts of personal and private information, they do so differentiating between destinations for that information. Friends, family and work are three separate networks in their minds. Young people are concerned that their personal information, while freely shared within their network of friends, may end up in the hands of others such as family and managers who may not be members of the same network.

      "This study helps us better understand how today's young people are using this first generation of online social networks, and how they approach the modern challenge of protecting their reputation online," says the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, Jennifer Stoddart. "It sheds light on how young Canadians are interpreting the concept of privacy online - and how strongly they differ from their parents and employers. We are proud to support Professor Levin's research."

      The researchers found that although students who are closer to entering the workforce full-time are more concerned about their reputation and the difficulty in "scrubbing" their online electronic record clean, they do not actually take steps to do so. Similarly, young women are more aware and concerned about their privacy and reputation and therefore more active in attempting to control access to their information.

      "What's particularly interesting is the attitude of young Canadians who are entering the workforce at a time when organizations are embarking on the replacement of the baby boomer generation," said Levin. "Canadian employers are facing challenges in how to manage the use of online social networks with this new generation of employees. It's worthy of note that none of the employers represented had a policy specifically related to online social networks unless they had experienced a related incident. All assume that their existing policies on the use of the Web will handle it. On the other hand, those who recognized the potential business advantage that social networking technology brings saw the real challenge as how to discourage inappropriate behaviour while encouraging appropriate use."

      More than half of young Canadians believe that work life and personal life should be kept separate. While most feel strongly that it is inappropriate for employers to use online social networks to check up on employees or job applicants, they have far fewer objections to using online social networks themselves for after hours socializing with fellow employees and promoting goods and services to others.

      Dr. Levin and his team personally interviewed more than 2,000 undergraduate students in the largest quantitative research study to date on the use of online social networks by young Canadians. He also conducted sixteen in-depth interviews with top private and public sector executives about their policies, practices and perceptions of online social networks, including accessing employee or job applicant personal online information.

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