Minnesota Survey of College Students’ Internet Use and Privacy Attitudes

The Minnesota Daily has conducted a survey of University of Minnesota students in which they asked students about Internet Use, Social Networking Websites and Associated Privacy Issues, Internet Identity, Internet Safety and Data Privacy, and The Internet and Participation. They have published at least one news story about the survey as well as some of the methodological details of the survey. While they don’t appear to have published the survey instrument, the published methodology seems to be relatively sound (as it should be since they contracted with the university’s Department of Survey Research). The “report” seems to be missing some details and sections (no “Discussion” section???); there are multiple versions of the report on their website, each longer than the last, so maybe they are publishing drafts of the report as they become available…?

A few of the notable findings:

  • Although nearly 1/3 of the respondents believed that “their Internet activities are anonymous….older participants were less likely to believe their Internet activities are anonymous.”
  • 85% of respondents have visited a social networking website and 73% are a member of at least one site with 63% members of Facebook, 32% members of MySpace, and 27% members of both.
  • When asked if it was a violation of privacy for employers or university administrators to find out more about or investigate students by viewing profiles and information on social networking sites, respondents’ opinions were split. However, most respondents do not view police using social networking sites to investigate crimes as a violation of privacy.
  • Just over half of respondents “trust online companies and organizations to keep information about them private,” nearly one quarter of respondents “say they feel safe making purchases online,” and 80% of respondents “are concerned that someone could steal their identity using personal information found on the Internet.”
  • 75% of respondents “say they would rather email a professor or TA than go to their office hours,” just over one-third believe that responding to e-mail “takes up too much of [their] time,” and nearly 40% would “prefer to confront someone about a problem via email rather than in person.”

The news article published by The Minnesota Daily touches on some of these findings. At least one of the quotes printed in the article, however, mentions an issue not explored in the survey itself. Specifically, an English professor interviewed for the article says, “Students send these e-mails in a very casual manner….They don’t put a lot of reflection into composing their questions or comments and typically the tone that students assume in e-mails is more appropriate to, say, corresponding with a friend than a professor.” Without analyzing additional research, I don’t know whether this is a issue unique to or more prevalent in younger persons; my feeling is that it is an issue that is more closely linked to those who use the medium regardless of age.

The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s The Wired Campus picked up this story (but not the survey report). Perhaps it’s a natural phenomenon that the “truths” in the survey report become changed and diluted as the information is passed from story to story (from the survey report to the Minnesota Daily article to the The Wired Campus…to this blog???) much like the childhood “Telephone Game.” The main message that seems to come across in The Wired Campus’ post is a dichotomy between “electronic communication” vs. “in-person communication.” Like many dichotomies, this one is false. I think the main problem is that the general question asking “would [you] rather email a professor or TA than go to their office hours?” lacks context. For what hypothetical purpose are the students being asked to email or visit the TA or professor? There may be a significant difference between a simple question and a more complex one. Other research has found that students do discern between media so perhaps some of them are simply choosing the appropriate medium to ask many questions.

The Daily Minnesota article notes a generational gap that extends not only between students and faculty but also older and younger faculty. Dr. Augst, a professor quoted several times by the Daily Minnesota who seems to have been interviewed as a representative of the older faculty, asserts that “any question can be more effectively answered in person.” Although I sympathize with his point of view I do not agree. Until I begin recording all conversations and transcribing them so I can later reproduce them on demand and search and sort them, e-mail will remain my medium of choice for some interactions.

In summary, many of the findings of this survey and the opinions expressed in the article are similar to those in other research. It’s clear that there are opinions and attitudes that change over time, either with experience or maturation, including realistic views of security and anonymity. However, there are also opinions and attitudes that may not change over time with choice of medium being a prominent example. While some of these opinions and attitudes are clearly incorrect and do not reflect reality (no matter how strongly you believe, you will not “believe” yourself into being secure or anonymous) others are just subjective opinions that are equally as valid as others.