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What Gen Z really cares about when it comes to privacy

It would be easy to think that Gen Z doesn’t care about privacy. They worry less about ad tracking, do little to stem the flow of their private information online, and, as Malwarebytes recently uncovered, monitor one another’s lives far more than other generations.

But it isn’t that Gen Z, wholesale, doesn’t care about privacy. It’s that they care about privacy in a different way.

Unlike other generations whose privacy fears are deeply entangled with concerns of traditional cybercrimes like identity and credit card theft, Gen Z worries most about the exposure of their private information because of the chance of harassment, bullying, and lost friendships.

In fact, when it comes to many privacy concerns that have a cybersecurity overlap, Gen Z cares less overall. According to our research, compared to 51 percent of non-Gen Z, 62 percent of Gen Z agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement:

“I’m more worried about my private information being exposed online (e.g., embarrassing/compromising photos/videos, mental health, sexuality, etc.) than I am about typical cybersecurity threats (like viruses, malware etc.).”

As privacy advocates (including Malwarebytes) continue to fight for expanded digital rights amongst all users, it is paramount that we understand how to appeal to a younger generation of future recruits. For Generation Z, that data privacy fight is unlikely to deal with data brokers, Bluetooth trackers, or privacy-invasive web browsers. It is also unlikely to lean on the same concept of “privacy” itself.

Instead, the fight for “privacy” may start from the inverse: The right to control what becomes public.

Losing the fight for traditional online privacy

In October, Malwarebytes published new research into the cybersecurity and online privacy habits of 1,000 respondents in the United States and Canada. Titled “Everyone’s afraid of the internet and no one’s sure what to do about it,” the report reveals that too many people spy on their spouses, too few use unique passwords, and too many who are worried about identity theft don’t actually do anything about it (and to those people, we say: We’ve got you covered).

Deeper inside the data, though, is a depressing, new finding: We have likely lost the fight on traditional online privacy. Online ad tracking and location monitoring—which privacy advocates have lobbied against for years—are of little importance to Gen Z.

A third, or 33 percent, of Gen Z agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I don’t mind being tracked by websites or apps,” compared with 22 percent of non-Gen Z, and 49 percent of Gen Z agreed or strongly agreed that “Being able to track my spouse’s/significant other’s location when they are away is extremely important to me,” compared with 39 percent of non-Gen Z.

Looking at disagreement with certain statements also shines light on what Gen Z finds acceptable in their own relationships. When asked how they feel about the statement “I think monitoring apps and tools are an invasion of privacy,” fewer Gen Z respondents disagreed than non-Gen Z—18 percent compared to 24 percent—revealing, perhaps, that fewer members of this younger generation will ever stand up against this type of intimate surveillance.

But for all the spying and ad tracking that Gen Z allows, their approach to obtaining consent before posting about other people is, simply put, extraordinary.

When Gen Z shares photos, videos, or information about literally anyone in their lives, they always seek consent for every type of relationship more often than non-Gen Z. More often, Gen Z always seeks consent when posting about their spouse or significant other (39 percent compared to 32 percent non-Gen Z), their close friends (41 percent compared to 32 percent), their children (39 percent compared to 29 percent), other people’s children (41 percent compared to 35 percent), their parents (38 percent compared to 29 percent), other, older family members (34 percent compared to 29 percent), other, younger family members (36 percent compared to 30 percent), and even people they don’t know or don’t know well (32 percent compared to 26 percent).

Here, we see a kernel of an idea for Gen Z privacy, in that what is shown is what matters.

What Gen Z really cares about

Despite the differences discussed above, Gen Z’s privacy “calculus” is quite similar to that of non-Gen Z. Both groups worry about personal information being used in ways that they haven’t agreed to, which can lead to consequences they’ve personally experienced.

Where non-Gen Z worries about identity theft, credit card fraud, data breaches, and good old-fashioned hacking, Gen Z simply can’t be bothered.

A full 86 percent of non-Gen Z are concerned or very concerned about their financial accounts being hacked, compared to 72 percent of Gen Z who feel the same way. Similarly, 85 percent of non-Gen Z are concerned or very concerned about having personal information or data stolen by hackers or thieves, compared to the 74 percent of Gen Z, and 86 percent of non-Gen Z are concerned or very concerned about identity theft or fraud, compared to 69 percent of Gen Z.

Gen Z’s (relative) ease with these threats is understandable—these aren’t even “threats” to them, they’re facts of life. How do you define a “stolen” Social Security Number after the attack on Equifax? How do you spend time worrying about one company’s data breach when hundreds are hacked every year?

Instead, Gen Z worries about being unable to manage the information released about them online, and the potential fallout that could—and in many cases already has—come from it.

This is first visible in the fact that Gen Z is more concerned or very concerned about having their personal struggles shared online (59 percent compared to 57 percent for non-Gen Z), having their sexual orientation exposed online (45 percent compared to 37 percent), and having embarrassing photos, videos, or information posted about them online (61 percent compared to 55 percent).

From that type of exposure, Gen Z then worries more often about interpersonal consequences than non-Gen Z. More than a third, 34 percent, of Gen Z worry about “what my friends/family would think of me” compared to 26 percent of non-Gen Z, and 29 percent worry about “what would happen to my friendships/relationships” compared to 26 percent of non-Gen Z.

More consequentially, 34 percent of Gen Z worry about being physically harmed, compared to 27 percent of non-Gen Z, while 36 percent worry about being bullied, compared to 22 percent of non-Gen Z.

Now, it may be easy to excuse some of these numbers on youth—bullying is more prevalent for students, even if it extends online—but the same fears carry over into the workplace. Again, almost a third of Gen Z, 33 percent, worry about being fired or having a work opportunity taken away because of exposed private information, compared to 29 percent of non-Gen Z.

Buoying many of these fears is the fact that many members of Gen Z have already directly faced these types of events before. Disproportionately, Gen Z deals with more harassment, abuse, blowback, and upset feelings for the things that they and others share about them online than non-Gen Z.

In the research, Malwarebytes asked respondents “Have any of the following consequences ever happened to you because of something you or someone else did or posted online?” Gen Z revealed that:

  • 20 percent have had their confidence hurt because of how they were portrayed (compared to 12 percent of non-Gen Z)
  • 23 percent suffered worsened mental health (compared to 12 percent of non-Gen Z)
  • 18 percent had someone incorrectly assume something about them or their identity (compared to 12 percent of non-Gen Z)
  • 18 percent were stalked or bullied (compared to 9 percent of non-Gen Z)
  • 17 percent lost a friend, significant other, or someone important to them (compared to 8 percent of non-Gen Z)

Amidst all the data, these responses spotlight the largest discrepancies—twice as many Gen Zers have been stalked or bullied because of something posted online, and almost twice as many have lost a close friend or partner.

The response here cannot be blamed.

In the same way that people of all ages are forced to give up sensitive information to participate in modern society—divulging Social Security Numbers on mortgage applications or passport numbers on airline websites when flying internationally—Gen Z grew up in an era where posting on social media was the norm.

Further, the judgement that Gen Z faces online often applies a binary thinking to nuanced issues. With just one Instagram post, TikTok video, or tweet, people are separated into in-groups and out-groups. Jobs can be threatened, friendships can be enflamed.

If privacy is to continue, it must offer something to its youngest participants. Today and in the future, we hope Generation Z can consider that privacy isn’t about having something to hide—it’s about choosing what to broadcast.


David Ruiz

Pro-privacy, pro-security writer. Former journalist turned advocate turned cybersecurity defender. Still a little bit of each. Failing book club member.