If you've Googled yourself recently, you're not alone. The majority of American adults, 57 percent, now keep tabs on their reputations online, using search engines to track information about their Internet identities, according to a report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, released today. That's up from 47 percent in 2006.
The survey, based on results from telephone interviews of 2,253 individuals in 2009, reveals the growing importance of personal identities online. More and more Americans are signing up for social networking sites, and an increasing number say their work information, photos and birth dates can be found online.
More people are also using the Internet to turn up information — some might say snoop — on others: 46 percent of adults say they have used online searchers to find information about people from their past, (up from 36 percent in 2006); 38 percent have searched for friends (up from 26 percent), and 16 percent have scoured for facts about a person they were dating (up from 9 percent).
All this personal data online has both plusses and minuses, respondents reported, from the rare embarrassing tidbits found by others to the ability to get in touch with friends from the past.
Even with so many eyes on our online selves, views on privacy are somewhat mixed. People are less worried about how much of their personal information can be found online — 33 percent say they worry about it, down from 40 percent in 2006. But the majority, 65 percent, change their privacy settings on social networking sites to restrict who can see what.
Young people lead the way when it comes to managing their online reputations. Of adults aged 18 to 29, 71 percent have changed their privacy settings, compared with 55 percent of those aged 50 to 64. This group is also more likely than their elders o delete unwanted photos and comments from social networking sties.
"Contrary to the popular perception that younger users embrace a laissez-faire attitude about their online reputations, young adults are often more vigilant than older adults when it comes to managing their online identities," said Mary Madden, a researcher at the Internet & American Life Project and an author of the report.
Some other findings include:
- Adults with online profiles have more than doubled, going from 20 percent in 2006 to 46 percent in 2009.
- 27 percent work for an employer that has rules about how employees present themselves online, up from 22 percent in 2006.
- The majority of Internet users, 54 percent, contribute content online in some way, posting questions or comments on blogs and social networking sites. But 41 percent do so under a screen name or username, which provides some degree of obscurity.
- About 20 percent are unsure if their home address, cell phone number or birth date are available online for searchers to see, and about 32 percent are unsure if their e-mail is available.
What do you find when you Google?
When people search their names, most, 63 percent, find some relevant information about themselves, compared with 35 percent with no relevant results.
Less than a third (31 percent) are lucky enough to have most first page search results relevant to them, while 62 percent find most first page searches turn up information about someone else (their online doppelgangers).
That's not to say people "Google" themselves often. Only 2 percent say they regularly look up information about themselves; 19 percent say they do it once in a while; and 78 percent say they've searched themselves only once or twice.
Other trends among Internet users include:
- 42 percent say you can find a photo of them online, up from 23 percent in 2006.
- 12 percent say their cell phone number is available, up from 6 percent in 2006
- And 44 percent of those with jobs say search results turn up information about whom they work for, up from 35 percent in 2006.
The good and the bad
While not common, online misfortunes do happen: 4 percent say they have had personally bad experiences as a result of inaccurate or embarrassing information posted about them online, the report reveals. And 8 percent say they have tried to remove personal information, such as photos or videos, with 82 percent being successful.
But there is a plus side to the growing pool of personal information. Almost half of adults, 48 percent, agree that "getting to know new people now is easier and more meaningful," since they can find out information about others before meeting up.
And many have had people from their past get back in touch through the Internet: 40 percent say they have been contacted by former pals or acquaintances, up from 20 percent in 2006.
The telephone interviews for the survey were conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International between Aug. 18 and Sept. 14, 2009. Both landlines and cell phones were used for the interviews.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.