A new report says that a growing portion of adult internet users are concerned about their digital online identity.  More than half (57%) of internet users over age 18 say they have used a search engine to look up their name and see what information was available about them online, up from 47% who did so in 2006. And a big surprise: Despite their reputation for being reckless with their online reputations, it turns out that young adults, what I call the Net Generation,  are the most active online reputation managers.  More than any other age group, they care about what others can see or read about them.

“Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities,” said Mary Madden, lead author of the report released today from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.

“Search engines and social media sites now play a central role in building one’s identity online,” said Madden, “Many users are learning and refining their approach as they go–changing privacy settings on profiles, customizing who can see certain updates and deleting unwanted information about them that appears online.”

While the numbers show an increased awareness of one’s online identity through all age groups, those ages 18-29 are more likely than older adults to say:

  • They take steps to limit the amount of personal information available about them online—44% of young adult internet users say this, compared with 33% of internet users between ages 30-49, 25% of those ages 50-64 and 20% of those ages 65 and older.
  • They change privacy settings – 71% of social networking users ages 18-29 have changed the privacy settings on their profile to limit what they share with others online. By comparison, just 55% of SNS users ages 50-64 have changed the default settings.
  • They delete unwanted comments – 47% social networking users ages 18-29 have deleted comments that others have made on their profile, compared with just 29% of those ages 30-49 and 26% of those ages 50-64.
  • They remove their name from photos – 41% of social networking users ages 18-29 say they have removed their name from photos that were tagged to identify them, compared with just 24% of SNS users ages 30-49 and only 18% of those ages 50-64.

This is good news.  But I fear it is because of earlier bad news. Young adults were the biggest early adopters of social media and thus the first to be seriously burned by sites having little regard for their privacy.  As such, they unfortunately served as the privacy canaries in the Internet coalmine.  So when asked today how much of the time they think they can trust social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn, 28% of SNS users ages 18-29 say “never.” By comparison, a smaller segment of older users express such cautious views; 19% of SNS users ages 30-49 and 14% of those ages 50-64 say they never trust the sites.

As the report documents, there are good reasons for all of us to be more vigilant. Online reputation matters; 44% of online adults have searched for information about someone whose services or advice they seek in a professional capacity. More and more people are likely to work for an employer that has policies about how employees present themselves online and co-workers and business competitors now keep closer tabs on one another.  And of course, it is not simply a question of what information that you’ve posted that you let others see. You’ve got to be careful about what thoughts or photos others post about you on social networking profiles, photo- and video-sharing sites, Twitter, and blogs.

The results in this report are based on data from telephone interviews conducted between August 18 and September 14, 2009, among a total sample of 2,253 adults, age 18 and older, including 560 cell phone interviews.