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Do Users Understand Facebook Privacy Settings?

Over a decade ago, the chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems said that consumer privacy issues are a “red herring.” Scott McNealy, Sun’s CEO at the time, was famously quoted as saying in January 1999, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

That was long before social networks became popular, and long before the rise of Facebook and Twitter. As we noted earlier this week, 2008 was the year of social networking, as social networks surpassed email usage for the first time ever.

Facebook is the social networking website that allows you to share as much of your life as you’d like with the world, or just a few select others. Although many people assume that Facebook is an “all or nothing” proposition when it comes to sharing information, it actually has a set of fairly fine-grained privacy controls that allows a user to control who can see what (under your account’s “Settings” menu) under your profile, from the Facebook search engine, in your news feed and what is available to the applications you use on Facebook.

So how much do users really know about these privacy settings and actually use them?

A team of researchers from the University of Guelph (Canada) set to find out and recruit 343 (81 men, 261 women) undergraduates at a mid-size university in Ontario, Canada. The 81 men and 261 women ranged in age from 17 to 24.

Participants reported spending an average of 38.86 minutes on Facebook each day (standard deviation: 32.16) and had between 25 and 1,000 Facebook “friends” (Mean: 297.07, SD: 173.21).

Facebook users have the option to share a variety of personal information in their profiles, and nearly all of the participants had joined a network (97%) and posted their birthday (96%). Participants were also very likely to share personal information such as their e-mail address (85%), hometown (85%), relationship status (81%), along with their school and program (72%). Participants were far less likely to share their phone number (24%) and were very unlikely to share their home address (4%). Considering the high likelihood of having joined a network, as well as that, by default, membership in a network allows any member to see another member’s profile, these behaviors can make personal and revealing information accessible to friends as well as complete strangers. Participants were also likely or very likely (on a 7-point Likert scale) to post a profile picture and pictures with friends, though most were unlikely or very unlikely to post pictures of them or their friends doing something illegal or pictures of themselves naked or partially naked.

Based upon other questions asked by the researchers, they came to a conclusion that goes against the conventional wisdom — Facebook users in this study were generally concerned about their privacy and reported that they were likely to use the privacy settings provided. The researchers’ analysis also suggested that information disclosure and information control are not at two different ends of the same spectrum, but are instead two independent behaviors influenced by different aspects of a user’s personality.

What personality aspects did they find that were relevant to privacy settings on Facebook?

One interesting finding in our study is that the need for popularity, which significantly predicted information disclosure, did not predict control of personal information.

Instead, higher self-esteem predicted higher likelihood of controlling information, as did lower levels of trust.

Perhaps, then, controlling what is shared with more distant acquaintances on Facebook is different from sharing information with close friends.

Participants in the study also reported being significantly more likely to disclose information on Facebook than they were in general. What’s so unique about Facebook that it results in such greater information disclosure than what someone might do with a friend face-to-face? The researchers had some thoughts on that too:

It may be the case that either the visibility of one’s social network, or the social exposure that the Facebook environment provides, influences an individual’s need for popularity. Because need for popularity was found to be a significant predictor of disclosure on Facebook, the environment itself may enhance the saliency of popularity and its importance in a social network. It may also be the case that Facebook makes information disclosure the key factor in assessing a person’s popularity. Having a presence on Facebook requires that a person post many pictures, have active discussions with friends, and share personal interests and information.

Popularity and disclosure thus become inextricably linked.

I’d have to agree with this analysis. It seems that any environment that reinforces disclosure is inevitably going to result in far greater disclosure than an environment where disclosure is simply one of many options. Facebook results in so much disclosure because its users get rewarded for doing so — by gaining more “friends,” expanding their online social network, and becoming more popular.

And of course all of this may also unwittingly decrease a user’s general privacy if that person doesn’t also have great self-esteem or generally distrusts others.

And that’s one of the keys to the magic of Facebook — reinforcing users’ disclosure largely. The more you can get people to do that, the more connected they are to your service (after all, that’s where all my “stuff” is and where I’ve built up so many friendships).


Christofides, E., Muise, A. & Serge Desmarais, S. (2009). Information Disclosure and Control on Facebook: Are They Two Sides of the Same Coin or Two Different Processes? (PDF)CyberPsychology & Behavior: 12(2), 1-5.

Do Users Understand Facebook Privacy Settings?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Do Users Understand Facebook Privacy Settings?. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 12 Mar 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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