Do digital natives value their online privacy?

January 27, 2023

Mariam Chaduneli, Senior Policy Associate, Portulans Institute

Raashi Saxena, DCN Global Team Member, Asia

Who are digital natives?

The Oxford Dictionary defines a digital native as someone who grew up in the digital age and is familiar with computers and the internet from an early age. These are typically Millennials and Gen Z who have never experienced the world without the internet and view the web and digital devices as natural extensions of their lives. They strive to connect with one another and live meaningful, autonomous lives free of traditional hierarchies. A lifestyle both enabled and shaped by digital technologies.

For many digital natives, the internet serves as a source of communication, networking, learning, and even income. A widespread adoption of digital platforms contributed to the popularity of 21st century professions like content creators, influencers, web developers, graphic designers, digital advertising professionals and so on. Furthermore, it led to the emergence of gig economy platforms that allow individuals to maintain flexibility in their work schedules and strike a healthier work-life balance.


Some digital immigrants (a person born or brought up before the widespread use of digital technology) tend to believe that digital natives are so engrossed in technology that they are oblivious to its dangers or view it as a commodity that can be offered in exchange for services. There are also those who argue that digital natives are just as concerned with privacy as previous generations and that they are better equipped to protect themselves online. To understand the crux of this matter, one needs to examine privacy through an intergenerational lens, as well as the evolution of its common understanding over time.

Evolution of privacy

Prior to the ubiquitous presence of the internet, privacy was associated with one’s physical boundaries, having uninterrupted access to one’s home or private sphere. In 1850 Warren and Brandes explained the meaning of privacy as “the right to be let alone”. The notion of Privacy has evolved over time to accommodate changing circumstances, including the omnipresent tracking of online activities. Consequently, today, in an era of internet and digital devices, privacy is primarily concerned with our personal data, which defines both our online and real identities, our preferences, habits and biases.

Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants

It is no surprise that digital natives view privacy differently from digital immigrants. On one hand, this can be due to their different levels of exposure to the internet. It is possible that Generation Z and Millennials don’t mind excessive surveillance because they have been living with it from an early age. Unlike digital natives, the older generation doesn’t see technology as an inherent or natural part of their lives, which makes them more wary and suspicious about corporations knowing so much about them. Statistically, this has also made them vulnerable to cyber frauds and attacks, costing them $3 billion in financial losses in 2021 alone.

Another reason for this might be that privacy has become something that we have to negotiate. Being “known” through data and being digitally connected has become necessary for keeping a job, attending school, having a typical social life, especially post COVID.

It is also possible that digital immigrants tend to think about privacy as the ability to protect/hide information from others. However, Digital natives being more technologically fluent and collaboration-driven, view privacy as a tool to apply granular control on their information and customize who sees their information, in what context it is shared and how it fits into the process of shaping their digital presence.

Most young people associate “online privacy” with their private lives and social circles rather than with big tech, the government or cybercriminals. This is different for digital immigrants, a generation that has experienced some of the biggest privacy breaches from Cambridge Analytica, US Elections, to the latest breaches by tech giants like Facebook, Uber, Microsoft and their adverse impact on shaping the democratic processes within national and global contexts.

What do the numbers say?

According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, 60% of adults and 66% of teenagers restrict access to information in their profile. The same study shows that 66% of teens use these privacy controls to limit access to their profile and only 6% of teens make their first and last name publicly accessible on social networks. In an interview with the New York times, Mary Madden, a senior researcher for Pew’s Internet Project and an author of the report said that “there’s a pretty big, mounting body of evidence that suggests young adults are just as likely to care, if not more so, when it comes to awareness of government surveillance.”

Another study on behavioral advertising indicates that people in the 18-24 age bracket are most concerned about how their information is used to deliver news, advertisements, or discounts and make informed steps to limit their data being exposed.

These patterns were confirmed in a survey commissioned by the Internet Innovation Alliance. Based on the survey of 8,000 U.S. adults in various geographies, nearly 74% of respondents are concerned about hackers stealing their financial and personal data, and 76% do not want their online data or location information used for commercial purposes.

Similar findings are found for millennials: 67% are concerned that their personal financial information will be hacked by online and social media companies, and three out of four are worried about how tech and social media companies will use their location data. 69% percent of millennials do not want their online data used to personalize searches, advertising, or content.

Despite such findings, It is surprising, and perhaps even more concerning, that almost 60% of over 700 surveyed digital natives (F5 Labs: Privacy and Surveillance) report having received no online safety or security education.

Although it is hard to make decisive statements about a group as large and diverse as digital natives, these numbers show that young people are far from not caring about privacy. In fact, most young people seem to take their online privacy more seriously than their parents and actively use privacy-enhancing technologies to protect themselves.

Why should companies embrace privacy?

The demand for e-commerce started to grow at an accelerated rate during the global pandemic. By 2026, digital natives, particularly Gen Z, are expected to make up the largest consumer population in the U.S. Therefore, companies will have to balance providing a customized online shopping and checkout (often based on data) experience with ensuring the safety and security of the information.

Gen Z’s customer patterns and habits differ from previous generations. It is important for them that brands remain ethical, authentic, and transparent with their customers. While they are quick to walk away from companies that breach their trust, they remain loyal to businesses with a mission they believe in. 

As digital natives are increasingly concerned with their online identity, they seek more control and agency over what information is held about them, by whom, and their ability to update or remove inaccurate or harmful data.

In response to these growing concerns, we see Initiatives such as *Privacy Not Included by the Mozilla Foundation that takes a novel customer-centric approach by offering alternatives for users with limited time and resources to understand and read the privacy policies of tech products and applications.

These fundamental digital rights are also reflected in some of the most important privacy legislations (GDPR, CCPA, for example) which give data subjects (the individual to whom personal data relates) the right to access, rectify, and erase their data.

People around the world, as well as in the United States, are increasingly concerned with their privacy and legislative mechanisms to protect it. People in the U.S seem to have found a rare consensus on the issues of privacy with 64% of those ages 18-34 and 77% of people over the age of 55 supporting  a single nationwide data privacy legislation.

In 2022 alone, there were six countries that brought in legislation around data protection and privacy: Cuba, Eswatini, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Tanzania. The laws in these countries apply to personal information held in electronic and physical form by governments and private bodies. There are also 30 countries‘ with pending bills that bring about promises for faster adoption.

Indeed, It is important that privacy legislation continues to evolve, reflecting ongoing technological advancements and society’s changing understanding and expectations. Similarly, businesses must consider privacy as part of their decision-making as the new ISO standard set to be adopted in February 2023, making Privacy by Design an international privacy standard for the protection of consumer products and services, as well as a means for capturing customer loyalty, especially among younger customers that will soon dominate the market.

For more information about digital natives and their role in the process of digital transformation, please read the 2022 edition of the Network Readiness Index published by Portulans Institute and Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. And Sign up for our upcoming webinar about Challenges to Media Literacy organized by Portulans Institute and Digital Communication Network.

Mariam Chaduneli is a Senior Policy Associate who has worked extensively on research and policy analysis in the area of technology policy, emerging threats and digital rights.

Mariam is in charge of monitoring relevant national and international policy developments and producing research relating to digital policy, innovation readiness, and digital transformation. She is also responsible for coordinating long-term research projects across key focus areas for PI. She is the lead project manager for the Network Readiness Index (NRI) published in partnership with Saïd Business School, University of Oxford and coordinates the publication of the Global Innovation Index (GII) in partnership with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).

Mariam is a female entrepreneur and co-founder of an international legal tech startup that helps entry level lawyers develop practical legal skills in contract-drafting and legal research.

Raashi Saxena is a DCN team member for Asia and strategy consultant for Accessibility Lab and has extensive experience as a technologist, social impact innovator and practitioner.

Raashi serves in a number of advisory roles, including for The Internet Rights & Principles Dynamic Coalition, Missions Publiques’s “We, the Internet” Project and Threading Change, a sustainable fashion non-profit. As an international speaker, Raashi has spoken on panels and conferences across Africa, Asia, and Europe. She was highlighted as an expert in Mozilla’s 2022 Internet Health Report and Pew Research Center’s 2021 Report on Digital Spaces. Recognized by World Economic Forum as one of the Six Inspirational Young Female Leaders, Saxena is currently the Curator of Global Shapers Bengaluru Hub and is one of the 300 leaders of the 2020 Women Deliver Young Leaders Program represented by 96 countries. Saxena is based in Bangalore, India.