Do College Students Pay Attention to Data Privacy?

A special blog post and point of view from Media Works intern, Julia Adams

As digital entities take over our lives, we are left hoping that big tech platforms are adhering to their supposedly consensual terms and conditions.

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Will your password protect the information you just shared? Did you read through the fine print outlining their Data Policy? Did you happen to read the italicized Terms and Conditions? What are “cookies” anyway?

This past year at the University of Richmond I took a class called “Data & Society” focusing on the relationship between those two terms. It became clear that internet users are oblivious to how their data is used and where it is being stored. If data plays such a large role in our lives, why do we fail to understand where our data goes?

College students engage with several social media platforms, sharing their lives across Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat, and Facebook, to name a few. According to Pew Research, 84% of people ages 18-29 have at least one social media account, the greatest percentage out of all age groups 18-65+. Meanwhile every social media engagement (clicks, likes, Tweets) are recorded, analyzed, and saved in a database. And this social media majority—college students– rarely question their privacy on these platforms.

Your algorithm developed within your device evolves based on your interests and personal information. The algorithm predicts your movements, sending you notifications to buy the clothes you were looking at earlier or even sending you a discount code to influence a purchase. Algorithms can drive us to engage more with the tailored media it brings to our attention, pulling us in to learn more.

A central idea discussed in my class was that data privacy and consensual technology should be topics that are taught more in schools and universities. The internet and social media hold power over their users who deserve to understand how their data is being used, tracked, and analyzed. The class has made me more vigilant in thinking about my data than my peers. While I could share this information with them to elevate their awareness, generally younger people continue to ignore safety and privacy until something goes wrong. Unfortunately, humankind takes more of a “learn from mistakes” approach instead of proactive education—specifically with technology. It remains to be seen whether this casual approach to privacy will always be unique to younger users, or whether Gen Z and Millennials (to a lesser extent) will always be OK with sharing their data as they age.

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