“What Can I Really Do?” Explaining the Privacy Paradox with Online Apathy

Authors: Eszter Hargittai and Alice Marwick

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Citation: Hargittai, E., & Marwick, A. (2016). "What Can I Really Do?" Explaining the Privacy Paradox with Online Apathy. International Journal of Communication. 10:3737-3757.


Based on focus group interviews, we considered how young adults’ attitudes about privacy can be reconciled with their online behavior. The “privacy paradox” suggests that young people claim to care about privacy while simultaneously providing a great deal of personal information through social media. Our interviews revealed that young adults do understand and care about the potential risks associated with disclosing information online and engage in at least some privacy-protective behaviors on social media. However, they feel that once information is shared, it is ultimately out of their control. They attribute this to the opaque practices of institutions, the technological affordances of social media, and the concept of networked privacy, which acknowledges that individuals exist in social contexts where others can and do violate their privacy.


  • The Privacy Paradox
  • Generational Differences?
  • Data and Methods
    • Data Collection
    • Analysis
    • Participants
    • Internet Experiences
  • Findings
    • Knowledge About Privacy and Risks
    • Lack of Control and Networked Privacy
    • Responsibility
    • Privacy-Protective Behaviors
    • Apathy and Cynicism
  • Conclusion


We are grateful to Merck (Merck is known as MSD outside the United States and Canada) for its support. For assistance with the project, we also thank Elizabeth Hensley and Northwestern University’s Summer Research Opportunity Program, Devon Moore, Somi Hubbard, and Karina Sirota through Northwestern’s Undergraduate Research Assistant Program. Hargittai also appreciates the time made available through the April McClain-Delaney and John Delaney Research Professorship for conducting this project.

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