How Much Is Too Much When It Comes to Self-Disclosure?
A condition called privacy fatigue may lead you to let down your filters.
Posted Feb 20, 2018
You’re reading the latest Facebook posts of people you knew years ago whose online exploits you still follow. They show pictures of themselves with their children, in their new houses, and on vacation. Birthdays and holidays appear on their feed, highlighting their many new, lavish gifts. Something about the amount of information they’re divulging just seems “off” to you. Are they providing clues about their whereabouts and possessions, not to mention family, that people with ulterior motives may decide to exploit? How about public conversations among friends or coworkers sharing a train or bus ride on mass transit? You’ve undoubtedly heard discussions loud enough for all to bear witness to about such topics as arguments with spouses, the difficulties they have with their boss, what’s going on in their child’s classroom, or trips they’re planning to take in the near future. In the extreme, perhaps they use the time they have during a long commute to put on a show to anyone in the vicinity to complete personal grooming, such as putting on a complete face of makeup. Does it puzzle you that these people have no filter?
Hanbyul Choi and colleagues (2018), of the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (Korea), propose that after years and years of hearing about threats to people’s security of public self-disclosures, it’s easy to experience what they call “privacy fatigue.” Relating more to Internet use than those public displays of personal information in real-life settings, Choi et al. define this phenomenon as “a sense of weariness toward privacy issues, in which individuals believe that there is no effective means of managing their personal information on the Internet” (p. 42). Although people vary in their degree of privacy fatigue, the Korean authors believe that we’re all getting a little sick and tired of having to draw a boundary around personal information for the sake of protection from online or real-life threats by others wishing to do harm.
Privacy fatigue, Choi et al. argue, is just like any other form of fatigue in which you become weary of trying to meet too many demands on you, leading to perpetual exhaustion. In the extreme, you experience burnout and become frustrated, hopeless, and disillusioned (otherwise known as cynical). More importantly, you begin to feel that you lack the self-efficacy to do what you need to do to accomplish your goals. In the case of privacy fatigue, then, you feel that you just can’t keep up with the need to maintain your vigilance about sharing personal information. You leak things on Facebook, share your exercise tracking, dietary intake, and weight data with an online fitness app, and tell anyone in your vicinity how you really feel about the various people in your life. Given the "six degrees of separation" phenomenon, this latter leakage can create real problems for you, because you never know who knows those friends and family of yours.
Security, consent, and breach fatigue are three forms of Internet privacy fatigue that the Korean team identified, and these are what lead you to hit “accept” and “purchase” in your online megastore without giving the matter any thought. Every time you do a search on Google, your data are being collected, but you can’t imagine never searching on Google, can you?
In studying the relationship between privacy fatigue and online behavior, Choi and colleagues developed a nine-item scale, divided into two components, with the items shown below:
1. I feel emotionally drained from dealing with privacy issues in an online environment.
2. I am tired of online privacy issues.
3. It is tiresome for me to care about online privacy.
1. I have become less interested in online privacy issues.
2. I have become less enthusiastic in protecting personal information provided to online vendors.
3. I doubt the significance of online privacy issues more often.
Two other scales measured the intention to disclose personal information on the Internet and disengagement, or the tendency to give up trying to control one’s privacy.
The findings among a sample of 324 respondents ages 40 to 59 (average age of about 41 years) revealed that, as the authors predicted, people who are actually concerned about privacy (but are not fatigued) indeed avoid disclosing personal information online and haven't become disengaged from mounting the effort. Those who experienced privacy fatigue, however, have given up their willingness to control their privacy and are disengaged from the whole process.
Choi et al. believe their findings help to explain the “privacy paradox” — that individuals continue to reveal personal details, despite concerns about online privacy. It’s not really the people high in concern alone who will share their every move in an online environment, but the people whose concern has turned to burnout and no longer feel they can handle the emotional demands of maintaining vigilance.
This study’s findings may remind you of people who are “off the grid” (or think they are), who refuse to use social media, won’t snip online coupons or offers, and won’t ever hop onto public Wi-Fi. They’ve somehow managed to avoid privacy fatigue, maybe because they feel they can control their Internet fates.
Let’s return, then, to the question of what to do if you’ve become a victim of privacy fatigue. You can diagnose this by using the above scales of exhaustion and cynicism to see if you’ve agreed heartily with those items. Mindlessly, you click away at every online lure, because it’s easier than fighting off the urge to do otherwise. You download free software, for example, which also offers you a “free” virus protection package or the ability to download videos off of YouTube. When it appears that you’ve attracted an unwanted add-on to your search engine, it just seems like too much effort to uninstall it, particularly if a shut-down is required. Rather than giving in to these impulses, practice privacy self-efficacy. Recognize that although it takes some effort, it’s worth keeping you and your family safe from predators. Because no one is ever truly off the grid, you can’t let your feeling that “it doesn’t matter” result in you opening the doors and inviting into your life someone who wants to harm you.
Now, let’s talk about that public place privacy fatigue. You used to refrain from sharing personal details unless you were behind closed doors, but now you figure everyone else does it, so what’s the risk? Perhaps you’ve overheard someone give out their email address and phone number (or worse, credit card number) while on the phone with a retailer. Well, other people do it, so why not you?
The old-fashioned, but perhaps wiser, strategies adopted in the pre-Internet age would seem worth heeding if you’ve become a victim of privacy fatigue. You may feel like a small cog in a very big wheel of the online world, but each piece of data you share really does matter and could turn out to hurt you or those close to you in the end.
To sum up, there are many ways that sharing with others, both online and in person, can help add to your happiness and fulfillment. Just tell yourself that it is possible and important to maintain at least some boundaries, and you’ll be better able to take advantage of the joys of sharing with an appropriate, and safe, filter.
Choi, H., Park, J., & Jung, Y. (2018). The role of privacy fatigue in online privacy behavior. Computers in Human Behavior, 8142-51. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.12.001