How Gen Z Uses Social Media Is Causing A Data Privacy Paradox

Gen Zers typically practice cybersecurity measures, and yet they share data openly on social media platforms for more personalized experiences

gen z, data privacy, cybersecurity, social media, tiktok

It’s hard to talk about the digital landscape without considering the implications of data privacy. The topic has been a hot-button issue since the introduction of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in 2018, and a crucial one for Gen Zers, the first true digital natives. When asked which issues need to be addressed “for a better world,” Gen Zers ranked data privacy fifth out of 24 potential options—perhaps surprisingly ahead of issues like war, judicial reform, and healthcare access.

Gen Zer’s actions align with their attitudes. They take protective online measures such as clearing cookies, using anonymous browsers, and encrypting their communications twice as often as other generations, according to ongoing research by the Oliver Wyman Forum. But they also are constantly plugged into social media, where they share data and abandon their privacy concerns. Companies eager to engage with Gen Zers should understand this contradiction and know how to navigate the complex data landscape.  

Gen Z’s privacy concerns mitigated on social media

Despite taking more protective measures with their data, Gen Zers are willing to share data and have less privacy in exchange for improved online experiences. About 88% of Gen Zers were willing to share some personal data with a social media company, compared to only 67% of older adults.  Gen Zers also are more accepting of the social media business model of selling user data and advertisements. Only 6% of them have “more of an issue with the business model of social media companies” after the COVID-19 pandemic compared to before, and 24% of Gen Zers said they were more addicted to social media—even after being exposed to increased mainstream discussion of data privacy concerns. 

The extent of Generation Z’s support for the social media business model, and its willingness to share personal data was apparent during the ongoing regulatory scrutiny of TikTok, a platform notorious for using copious amounts of personal data to power its algorithms. After TikTok CEO Shou Chew appeared at a congressional hearing on March 23 to defend the platform’s data privacy policies, Gen Z users on TikTok users showered the executive with support and signed petitions to stop any potential platform bans, including one with over 80,000 signatures. 

Three key factors behind this paradox

We observe three key factors that could help explain this apparent paradox in how Gen Zers think about data privacy:

Personalization outweighs privacy

Personal data sharing is the special sauce that makes social media so popular among Gen Zers. Personalization online is one of the main reasons they spend so much time on social media platforms, as 56% of Gen Z say that “personally interesting or relevant topics” is their primary reason for liking social media content. 

Gen Zers are much more willing than older generations to share personal data if it directly results in improvements to their social media experiences. When asked to rate their level of agreement with the statements “I would share my personal data in exchange for a better website experience” and “I would share my personal data in exchange for free access to online content,” Gen Z respondents averaged scores of 4.1 and 4.0 out of 7, respectively, compared to just 3.6 for both for non-Gen Z respondents.  In other words, recognizing that data sharing is the engine behind super-tailored experiences on social media, Gen Zers find personalization to be more of a non-negotiable need—even if it puts their privacy and data at risk.

Limited realization concerning the specifics of data policies

Even for Gen Zers concerned about data privacy issues, most are not aware of how their data is being used by social media companies. One study from the University of Pennsylvania asked consumers “true or false” statements about “basic corporate and governmental internet practices and policies,” including several pertaining specifically to social media. For 14 out of the 17 statements, over 50% of respondents either “did not know” the answer or selected the incorrect answer. Without an understanding of platform policies, it becomes easier for consumers to potentially ignore privacy risks. This gap in understanding is not unexpected. Corporations often make it difficult for users to understand how their data is used, burying details under lengthy and technical privacy policy pages that sit inconspicuously at the bottom of an obscure corner of a webpage or buried in a menu on a mobile app.

Threats aren’t salient

Relative to other types of data breaches—such as credit card or identity data—the true threat of a privacy breach on social media is often distant or unobservable to a consumer. Social media users are usually unable to tell whether their data has been compromised or a data breach has occurred, making the apparent risks of social media data sharing less salient to users going about their day-to-day lives online. Even if Gen Zers are concerned about data privacy in the abstract, they are unlikely to know when they are personally affected by the threat. 

Gen Zers often overlook the impact of the digital trail – what appears to be a harmless post today could destroy a reputation tomorrow. Having grown up in an environment in which it is normal to near-constantly upload one’s entire life onto social media, Gen Zers are more at risk of oversharing something that could be detrimental to them in the future.

Implications for tech and media firms

Instead of sitting in the shadows of consumer blind spots in data privacy, corporations should consider the reputational and brand value that could be created if they step forth and clearly communicate to their customers on how they think about protecting and using their data. This includes setting clear internal policies on data privacy. A proactive approach would not only ensure clearance from violations of government laws and regulations and protect against any reputational risks, but also instill consumer trust in the company.

Leona Chao and Gregory Block contributed to this article.