A new report, based on a survey and a series of focus groups conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project examine how teens, particularly those with profiles online, make decisions about disclosing or shielding personal information.

Still, 63% of teens with online profiles believe that a motivated person could eventually identify them from their online profile

WASHINGTON – The majority of teens actively manage their online profiles to keep the information they believe is most sensitive away from the unwanted gaze of strangers, parents and other adults. While many teens post their first name and photos on their profiles, they rarely post information on public profiles they believe would help strangers actually locate them such as their full name, home phone number or cell phone number.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of teens with profiles (63%) believe that a motivated person could eventually identify them from the information they publicly provide on their profiles.

A new report, based on a survey and a series of focus groups conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project examine how teens, particularly those with profiles online, make decisions about disclosing or shielding personal information.

Some 55% of online teens have profiles and most of them restrict access to their profile in some way. Of those with profiles, 66% say their profile is not visible to all internet users. Of those whose profile can be accessed by anyone online, nearly half (46%) say they give at least some false information. Teens post fake information to protect themselves and also to be playful or silly.

Here is a rundown of the kinds of information they post on their profiles, whether they are public or shielded:

  • 82% of profile creators have included their first name in their profiles
  • 79% have included photos of themselves.
  • 66% have included photos of their friends.
  • 61% have included the name of their city or town.
  • 49% have included the name of their school.
  • 40% have included their instant message screen name.
  • 40% have streamed audio to their profile.
  • 39% have linked to their blog.
  • 29% have included their email address.
  • 29% have included their last name.
  • 29% have included videos.
  • 2% have included their cell phone numbers.
  • 6% of online teens and 11% of profile-owning teens post their first and last names on publicly-accessible profiles.

The new survey shows that many youth actively manage their personal information as they perform a balancing act between keeping some important pieces of information confined to their network of trusted friends and, at the same time, participating in a new, exciting process of creating content for their profiles and making new friends. Most teens believe some information seems acceptable – even desirable – to share, while other information needs to be protected.

The majority of teen profile creators suspect that a motivated person could eventually identify them. While most teens take steps to limit what others can know about them from their profiles and postings, they also know that the powerful search tools available to internet users could help motivated individuals track them down. Some 23% of teen profile creators say it would be "pretty easy" for someone to find out who they are from the information posted to their profile, and 40% of teens with profiles online think that it would be hard for someone to find out who they are from their profile, but that they could eventually be found online. Another 36% say they think it would be "very difficult" for someone to identify them from their online profile.

"Teens realize that in some ways they are more accessible when they are online," says Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet Project and co-author of a new report based on the survey. "They try to strike a balance between being safe from strangers and keeping things private from their parents and other adults, while at the same time sharing enough information that allows them to socialize with friends and perhaps even make new friends."

The survey also suggests that today’s teens face potential risks associated with online life. Some 32% of online teenagers (and 43% of social-networking teens) have been contacted online by complete strangers and 17% of online teens (31% of social networking teens) have “friends” on their social network profile who they have never personally met. The report also addresses how teens make new friends and interact with strangers online.

  • 32% of online teens have been contacted by strangers online – this could be any kind of online contact, not necessarily contact through social network sites.
  • 21% of teens who have been contacted by strangers have engaged an online stranger to find out more information about that person (that translates to 7% of all online teens).
  • 23% of teens who have been contacted by a stranger online say they felt scared or uncomfortable because of the online encounter (that translates to 7% of all online teens).

"Social networking sites are not the first online application to spark worries among parents," says Mary Madden, senior research specialist at the Pew Internet Project and co-author of the report. "In our first study of teen internet usage in 2000, well before social networking sites emerged, many parents were worried that strangers would contact their children online through email and chat rooms. At the time, parents responded to these worries by taking precautions such as monitoring their child's internet use and placing the computer in a public area of the home – much as they do today."

The report, entitled, "Teens, Privacy, and Online Social Networks," is based on a survey conducted by telephone from October 23 through November 19, 2006 among a national sample of 935 youths ages 12 to 17 and on a series of seven focus groups conducted with middle and high-school aged teens in June 2006. The survey has a margin of error in the overall sample of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The Pew Internet Project is a non-profit, non-partisan initiative of the Pew Research Center that produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on children, families, communities, the work place, schools, health care, and civic/political life. Support for the non-profit Pew Internet Project is provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts.