Social Networking, 2013, 2, 1-8 Published Online January 2013 (
Disclosure and Use of Privacy Settings in
FacebookTM Profil e s : E v al uating t h e I m pa c t o f
Media Context and Gender
Amanda Nosko, Eileen Wood, Lucia Zivcakova, Seija Molema, Domenica De Pasquale, Karin Archer
Department of Psychology, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada
Received October 2, 2012; revised November 16, 2012; accepted December 28, 2012
The present study examined disclosure and use of privacy settings in online social networking prof iles as a function of
the media context (i.e., online versus hard copy (paper-and-pencil) FacebookTM profiles). Gender was also examined.
Overall, participants disclosed more information when constructing a profile for another person when using a hard copy
paper-and-pencil format than an online context. Gender differences were not uniform across media contexts, however,
in contrast to traditional disclosure theory, females censored their disclosures more so than males but only for some
topics. Only 20% of the sample increased their use of privacy settings. Consistent with patterns of disclosure, descrip-
tive comparison suggests that more settings were employed in the paper-and-pencil than online context and more pri-
vacy settings were employed by females.
Keywords: FacebookTM; Social Communication; Social Networking; Disclosure; Privacy Settings; Media Context;
1. Introduction
Throughout history, technological advancements have
changed the nature of social communication. Before the
age of the telephone, people corresponded either face-to-
face, or through written letters. This limited the number
of people who could be contacted as well as the time
taken for information to be shared. With the advent of the
telephone, people were able to communicate across long
distances, and could exchange verbal messages virtually
instantly. Over the last few decades, with the introduc-
tion of the Internet, social communication has experi-
enced another transformation. Email, instant messaging
(IM, MSN) and, most recently, online social networking
sites such as FacebookTM have become quick, easy and
desirable modes for communicating with close friends
and strangers alike. Although a great deal of information
is known about how people choose to disclose informa-
tion and how they handle personal privacy in traditional
media contexts (e.g., letter writing/print, face-to-face),
less is known about how online media formats impact on
disclosure and privacy decisions. The goal of the present
study was to examine differences in disclosure of per-
sonal information and use of privacy settings when indi-
viduals created FacebookTM profiles for another person
using an online media format or a hard copy (i.e., print)
2. Disclosure
The context in which information is shared has an impact
on levels of disclosure [1-4]. The general consensus is
that online media, when compared to more traditional
media, tend to encourage higher levels of disclosure
[1,3,5], although, as time goes on these differences tend
to dissipate [6]. It may be that initial disclo sure is greater
as a result of the perceived psychological distance fos-
tered by features of the online context (e.g., accessibility
and a synchronicity of communication or a lag time in
between messages). As a result, online users may be
more relaxed, more likely to “open up” and may even
feel less restrained [7]. These features may encourage
users to disclose intimate details without worry of expo-
sure [8,9], and, as a resu lt, there is the possibility o f over-
disclosure of personal information online which can
place an individual at risk [10]. Therefore, examination
of what information is disclosed and the protective me-
chanisms, such as use of privacy settings, used to safe-
guard disclosed information is warranted. In order to
better understand how online contexts function relative to
other contexts, it is also important to compare disclosure
in online contexts to more traditional media contexts.
Comparison of information presented in both traditional
(i.e., paper-and-pencil) and more recent media formats
(i.e., social networking sites) informs and extends exist-
opyright © 2013 SciRes. SN
ing theories of both offline and onl i ne communicat ion.
2.1. Gender Differences in Disclosure
A large body of research has examined how males and
females differ in terms of self-disclosure. Overall, in tra-
ditional offline contexts, females disclose more informa-
tion about themselves than males [11]. While fewer stu-
dies exist that examine gender differences in disclosure
in an online con text, availab le research reports have yi eld -
ed mixed findings regarding differences in the amount or
detail of information disclosed between males and fe-
males [12-14]. Given the impact of gender in traditional
contexts, gender was also examined in the present study.
3. Gender Differences in Privacy Attitudes
and Behaviors
Robust gender differences have been found regarding
attitudes and behaviors related to online privacy [15-19].
When compared to males, females perceived greater pri-
vacy risks when online, reported higher levels of privacy
concern, were more concerned about instituting laws
aimed at protecting privacy online, were more likely to
review and control available privacy settings online and
were more likely to provide aliases on web-pages [18,19].
In addition, in a social networking setting, females en-
gaged in various privacy protection behaviors more often
than males, including greater discretion when posting
and un-tagging photos, accepting friends and joining
groups [20]. Gender then, appears to be an important
factor in understanding what information is disclosed and
what behaviors are executed to secure the privacy of dis-
closed information in online contexts.
4. Disclosure and Privacy Risks Online
The threat of information invasion or misuse (e.g., iden-
tity theft, stalking) is ever-present online, and as such,
concern over over-disclosure is growing [21-24]. While
concern is growing, there is a strong disconnect between
concerns expressed over online privacy and correspond-
ing behaviors enacted to protect information onlin e, with
the large majority of users failing to employ available
protective mechanisms [12,25]. Therefore, the current
study examined disclosure within three risk categories
[10] in order to assess the degree of potentially harmful
information divulged as a function of both context and
gender. These categories included information that may
be used to steal one’s identity, information that may
threaten personal security, and, information that may be
used to stigmatize or label according to group member-
5. Summary of the Present Study
In the present study, the impact of media format on us-
ers’ decisions to share information in social networking
profiles was examined. Specifically, comparisons were
made between online and hard copy (paper-and-pencil)
formats. The current study also examined the impact of
gender both as a function of the person constructing the
online profile and the gender of the person for whom the
profile was being constructed. That is, participants were
asked to construct an online FacebookTM profile for ei-
ther a male or a female target. Given previous research
identifying gender as a key concern, gender of the par-
ticipant (male, female) and the target person gender (i.e.,
whether the profile participants created was for a male or
female) were considered. In order to ensure a degree of
control and consistency over the amount and type of in-
formation that could be disclosed, participants were pro-
vided with a full dossier about the male and female tar-
gets that differed only in the gender, name (Michael ver-
sus Sarah) and the individual depicted in the male and
female target photos1.
5.1. Hypotheses
1) It was anticipated that the online condition would
generate higher levels of disclosure than the hardcopy,
paper-and-pencil format;
2) Overall, it was expected that females would disclose
more information and employ more privacy settings than
would males;
3) An interaction was expected such that females
would disclose more information than males when using
the hardcopy, paper-and-pencil format than in the online
context, however, no gender differences in disclosure
were expected for the online condition;
4) It was expected that there would be less disclosure
and more privacy settings employed for female targets
than for male targets;
5) It was expected that female participants would dis-
close less and employ more privacy settings in particular
for female targets than for male targets.
6. Method
6.1. Participants
In total, 236 (100 males with Magemale = 18.74 years and
136 females with Magefemale = 18.40 years) first-year un-
dergraduate psychology students attending a mid-sized
Canadian University voluntarily participated for course
credit (ages ranged from 17 to 27 years; Mage = 18.55, SD
= 1.16). Most participants (n = 227) indicated that they
currently had a FacebookTM account. All participants
were treated in accordance with APA ethical guidelines.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of two
1Independent raters (4 females, 3 males) evaluated the photos based on
three criteria: attractiveness, sociability and friendliness. Results indi-
cated that ratings were similar for both se ts of photos (a lpha = 0.89)
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. SN
methodology conditions: paper-and-pencil (N = 129) or
online (N = 107). In addition, p articipants were also ran-
domly assigned to either a female or male target for
whom they would construct a profile: “Michael” (N =
102) or “Sarah” (N = 134).
6.2. Materials
Materials included portfolios with information about the
target person, FacebookTM accounts, privacy settings
booklets and scoring schemes.
6.2.1. FacebookTM Target Person Portfolio
All participants used information from a pre-made port-
folio that included the personal information of two fic-
tional individuals, Sarah Barnes and Michael Barnes, to
create a FacebookTM profile. All information except the
first names was identical in the two portfolios. Informa-
tion included a personal resume, an employment applica-
tion, a list of the individual’s “25 things about me”, a
short “About me” summary and a series of parallel pho-
tos (e.g., casual dress photo, formal dress photo, etc.).
6.2.2. FacebookTM Profiles and Accounts: Online
Each participant used the same make and model of com-
puter with Internet access. Prior to the study session, re-
searchers created a series of new email accounts in Hot-
mailTM which were used to open up new, blank Face-
bookTM accounts for each participant. All participants
used the standard FacebookTM website to construct their
profile. A folder was placed on the desktop that con-
tained all the photos that were in the portfolio, so that
photos could be uploaded directly into FacebookTM pro-
files if participants chose to do so .
6.2.3. FacebookTM Profiles: Paper-and-Pencil
Participants in the paper-and-pencil condition were pro-
vided with a paper-and-pencil version of a FacebookTM
profile. This 27 page booklet consisted of one screenshot
of each page available to users online when actually in
FacebookTM, including the pages that outlined privacy
setting options. All of the available drop down tab op-
tions and checkbox optio ns were displayed in the screen-
shots so that participants could simply circle their pre-
ferred choice. Participants were also provided with a
printed version of the 13 numbered photos identical to
the photos included in the online condition. They simply
indicated by photo number which, if any, they wished to
include in albums or as a profile picture.
6.2.4. Pri vacy Settings Booklet
Participants were provided with an 8-page privacy set-
tings booklet that outlined all of the privacy and account
settings available to users in FacebookTM. All settings
were described, alongside a screenshot of the actual set-
tings page as seen online. The explanations of privacy
settings provided in the booklet were taken from the
FacebookTM website privacy sett ings page
6.2.5. Scori ng Tools
This study used a series of scoring tools established for
coding disclosure in FacebookTM profiles [10]. This al-
lowed for assessment of disclosure across three catego-
ries of information (personal identity information, sensi-
tive personal information, and stigmatizing information),
and disclosure within 8 topic areas including: Personal
information, Picture and Album information, Work in-
formation, Education information, Age information,
Contact information, View information, and Relationship
information. The scoring tools assessed information di-
rectly available in the portfolios given to participants.
Use of privacy settings was assessed through 25 di-
chotomously scored items. Each item represented a pos-
sible change in privacy settings from the basic default
settings available on FacebookTM to a more conservative
7. Procedure
Each participant completed a brief survey to assess age,
gender, FacebookTM membership (i.e. , whether they cur-
rently had an account) and relationship status. Partici-
pants completed the profiles individually, seated in a
separate cubicle. For those in the online condition, Face-
bookTM log-in information was provided, including an
individual user name and password. Once logged into a
blank FacebookTM profile, participants constructed a
personal profile for the person whose information they
had been given (Michael or Sarah). In the paper-and-
pencil condition, participants were provided with a
booklet of screenshots that directly corresponded to each
screen viewable in FacebookTM. They were told to con-
struct a personal profile for the person whose information
they had been given (Michael or Sarah). In order to en-
courage participants to complete the profiles in as na tural
a way as possible, all participants (i.e., both paper-and-
pencil and online) were told in a cover story that the tar-
get person for whom they were creating the profile was a
real person, that they had volunteered their personal in-
formation, and that this person may have the opportunity
to view the profile (online condition: online in Face-
bookTM, paper-and-pencil: on paper) once it was com-
pleted. All participants were instructed to use as much or
as little information as they felt appropriate. Each par-
ticipant was told that they could find detailed instructio ns
describing the privacy settings on Faceb ookTM within the
privacy settings booklet. Sessio ns took approximately 75
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. SN
minutes to complete.
8. Results
Two sets of analyses were conducted. The first set exa-
mined disclosure and the second set examined privacy.
8.1. Disclosure
Personal Identity Information, Sensitive Personal Infor-
mation, and Stigmatizing Information. To address the
question of how much information participants disclosed
in the three disclosure categories (personal identity in-
formation, sensitive personal information, and stigmatiz-
ing information), one multivariate an alysis of variance, a
2 (Context condition: Paper-and-pencil, Online) × 2 (Par-
ticipant gender: Male, Female) × 2 (Target gender: Male,
Female) was conducted.
Results revealed a significant main effect of context
for sensitive information (F (1 , 219) = 28.21, p < 0.001).
Contrary to expectation, however, p articipants who filled
out paper-and-pencil profiles disclosed more sensitive
information (M = 3.48, SD = 1.44) than those who filled
out profiles online (M = 2.51, SD = 1.09).No other main
effects were significant. There was one significant inter-
action of gender of participant by gender of target for
stigmatizing information (F (1, 219) = 5.73, p = 0.02).
Follow-up independent t-tests revealed that the differ-
rence was significant for female targets, (t (129) = 2.34, p
= 0.02), such that male participants disclosed more stig-
matizing information (M = 7.17, SD = 2.73) than female
participants about the female target (i.e., Sarah Barnes; M
= 6.00, SD = 2.71)).
Disclosure within FacebookTM Content Areas. To ad-
dress the question of how much information participants
disclosed in the eight content areas within FacebookTM
(i.e., Personal information, Picture and Album informa-
tion, Work information, Education information, Age in-
formation, Contact information, View information, and
Relationship information), one multivariate analysis of
variance (MANOVA), a 2 (Context condition: Paper-
and-pencil, Online) × 2 (Participant gender: Male, Fe-
male) × 2 (Target gender: Male, Female), including all 8
variables was conducted.
There were significant main effects of context condi-
tion for three of the eight topics: relationship information
(F (1, 216) = 6.86, p = 0.009), work information (F (1,
216) = 17.71, p < 0.001) and contact information (F (1,
216) = 26.95, p < 0.001) (See Table 1). In all three of
these topic areas, disclosure was greater in the paper-
and-pencil condition in comparison to the online condi-
tion. There were no significant main effects for either
gender of the participant or gender of the target (larg est F
= 2.95).
These main effects were qualified by four significant
Table 1. Means for relationship, work and contact informa-
tion as a function of context.
Content Area Context Condition Mean
Information Paper-and-Pencil 0.63
Online 0.55
Work Information Paper-and-Pencil 0.24
Online 0.08
Contact Information Paper-and-Pencil 0.30
Online 0.11
interactions. The first two interactions involved context
condition and gender of the participant for education
information (F (1, 216) = 7.81, p = 0.01) and personal
information (F (1, 216) = 3.99, p = 0.05). Follow-up
independent t-tests were conducted, one for paper-and-
pencil and one for online. For each, gender was entered
as the grouping variable, and education and personal in-
formation were entered as the dependent variables. In the
paper-and-pencil condition, males disclosed more educa-
tion information than females (t (127) = 2.36, p = 0.02,
Mmale= 0.63 and Mfemale= 0.49). Similarly, in the online
condition, males disclosed more personal information
than females (t (101) = 2.19, p = 0.03, Mmale= 0.60 and
Mfemale= 0.48).
The second set of interactions involved gender of the
participant and gender of the target for relationship in-
formation (F (1, 216) = 7.35, p = 0.01) and view infor-
mation (F (1, 216) = 6.38, p = 0.01). For both interac-
tions, follow-up independent t-tests were conducted, one
for males and one for females. For each, gender of the
target was entered as the grouping variable, and relation-
ship information was entered as the dependent variable.
Disclosure of relationship information differed by tar-
get gender for females only (t (134) = 2.07, p = 0.04),
such that they disclosed more for male targets (Mmaletarget
= 0.67) than for female targets (Mfemaletarget = 0.52). Dis-
closure of view information differed by gender of par-
ticipant for female targets only (t (130) = 2.70, p = 0.008),
such that males disclosed more (Mmale = 0.60) than did
females (Mfemale = 0.38).
8.2. Privacy Settings Use
Only 20% of the participants across the sample made
changes to the default privacy settings. Given these small
numbers, only descriptive information could be calcu-
lated. A count of those making changes suggested that
more privacy settings were employed in the paper-and-
pencil condition in comparison to the online condition
(39 versus 10 changes, respectively). Generally, females
engaged more privacy setting changes than did males (30
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. SN
versus 19, respectively). Similarly, for target gender,
more privacy settings were employed when the target
was female than male (33 versus 16, respectively).
9. Discussion
The disclosure of information shared with others and the
perceived privacy of that information are identified as
important concerns for personal safety, security, and psy-
chological well-being. Overall, the present study found
that the media context used to construct online social
networking profiles and gender impacted on decisions to
disclose information, but did not appear to impact use of
privacy settings in any substantial way.
9.1. Disclosure
Contrary to expectations and previous studies [1,3,5],
disclosure was greater when participants constructed pro-
files using hardcopy, paper formats than online formats.
This surprising outcome may be an artifact of the design
of the present study. In previous research, disclosure was
typically assessed for information shared about one’s self
[26], whereas in the present study participants were
asked to make decisions about what information should
be disclosed about another, unknown person. The ma-
nipulation of requiring participants to construct a profile
for an unknown stranger was employed in the present
study to ensure equivalency in available information
about the target characters, but also to avoid possible
ethical concerns that would be present if participants
were required to disclose personal information online. It
is possible that by requiring someone to decide what per-
sonal information should be revealed for another person,
the very ethical issues we were trying to avoid for the
participants became a focal concern for the participants.
That is, participants may have struggled with concerns
about the security of information in the online condition
particularly because the information was not their own.
The paper media context may not have been have been
perceived to be “risky” as the distribution of information
would be limited with only the researchers and the indi-
viduals for whom the profile was being designed having
access to the information, whereas profiles constructed
online would be housed in a public domain and could
conceivably be accessed by a multitude of others. The
salience in risk for the online context may have been
particularly evident, especially when considering the im-
plications for another person. The unexpected direction
of outcomes suggest that patterns of disclosure especially
when online may be different when the information is
being shared about someone else, especially a complete
stranger, and this interesting issue clearly requ ires further
investigation in future research.
Alternatively, differences across media contexts may
simply reflect a more general cautiousness regarding
online disclosure in the current participants. Given that
the majority of participants were experienced Face-
bookTM users, most would be aware of the availability o f
the information once entered online and this knowledge
may have curtailed disclosure. Participants, therefore,
may perceive that information “leakage” is greater in an
online setting and subsequently greater vigilance may be
invoked when disclosing in this context. This interpreta-
tion is consistent with the analysis of topic areas infor-
mation where much less sensitive information was dis-
closed online than on paper. In addition, greater caution
was exhibited by female than male participants.
It is also possible that the nature of the paper-and-
pencil condition may have encourag ed greater disclosure.
Specifically, participants were given full page screen-
shots in their booklets that were visible in their entirety at
all times. In contrast, in the online co ndition users had to
scroll through pull down tabs to access pages making
only one page available for view at any given time. Per-
haps having all of the potential “pages” presented simul-
taneously with obvious blank spots easily observable
encouraged participants to fill in more information. To
better understand the decision-making process in each of
the two media contexts, future research might employ
talk aloud or interview methods to ask participants to
explain their choices as they work through a profile.
Differences in disclosure also emerged as a function of
context and gender of participant for two of the eight
topic scales: education information and personal infor-
mation. On paper, males disclosed more education in-
formation than females and online, males disclosed more
personal information than females. Although in both
cases males disclosed more information than females,
increased disclosure occurred in different topics in the
two media contexts. This inconsistency in disclosure
across media contexts was quite puzzling, especially
when considering the argument that certain types of in-
formation may be seen as more ‘unsafe’ than others. In
the case of education information versus personal infor-
mation, one might assume that personal information is
more “risky” to share online. One possibility is that for
some participants, particularly males, online social net-
working profiles may be viewed as a less explicit way of
meeting romantic partners and may even be seen as a less
overt dating site. Revealing personal information may
have been viewed as an opportunity to share potentially
desirable and insightful information about the target per-
son that could potentially be used in future for dating
purposes. Indeed, Madden and Lenhart [27] found that
relationship seekers often use the Internet as a means for
locating potential dating partners and Golub and col-
leagues [28] found that males were more likely to report
that they would consider dating someone online. By ad-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. SN
vertising information such as interests, activities and all
“about me”, items that were included in the personal in-
formation topic scale, it is possible that male participants
may have been “putting it out there” for the target and
displaying information that another user may be inte-
rested in knowing should they be looking for a relation-
Significant interactions also emerged between gender
of the participant and gender of th e target for relationship
information and view information. Specifically, disclo-
sure of relationship information differed by target gender
for females only, such that they disclosed more for male
targets than for female targets. Again, this may be recog-
nition that males may be more likely to assert romantic
status. Males and females may view relationships differ-
rently, such that females may have less permissive atti-
tudes abou t infidelity and may hav e an increased need to
display this qualifying information, whereas males may
view certain interactions as an opportunity to potentially
meet new partners [28] and these tendencies may differ
by context.
9.2. Privacy Settings
Although it was expected that participants would engage
privacy settings, increased use of privacy settings rarely
occurred, however, when changes were made, the pattern
of changes was consistent with expectations. Specifically,
more settings were employed when individuals set up the
target person’s FacebookTM account in the paper context
than the online context. Again, the nature of the paper-
and-pencil booklet may have encouraged greater use of
privacy settings. It is possible that users found it over-
whelming to find the appropriate setting online, even
when a booklet outlining the settings was provided.
Checking with the prepared booklet also would require
that participants shift between media, which may have
made using the text support more cumbersome and less
desirable when particip ants were creating online profiles.
Moreover, given that online the settings are oftentimes
not obviously laid out or in intuitive places, users may
have grown tired of looking for them or decided that it
was not worth the effort to locate and employ a particular
privacy setting.
Overall, females employed more privacy settings than
did males and females employed more settings for a tar-
-get person of the same gender. Together these findings,
albeit only descriptive in nature, support previous re-
search suggesting that females express greater caution
and, perhaps, greater sense of social responsibility [29],
especially in the case of a stranger’s personal information.
Given the relatively large amount of disclosure on paper,
it appears as though females are more consistent in their
protective behaviors and more inclined to complement
their disclosure with use of privacy settings. Given the
lack of theoretical linkages between disclosure and pro-
tective behaviors, these findings warrant further exami-
Past research suggests that invoking privacy setting
use may be a particularly challenging task [6,30,31] and
clearly more than media context is involved in motivat-
ing privacy setting use. Further research examining what
motivates use of privacy settings is needed.
9.3. Closing Comments
FacebookTM, and social networking sites in general, are
ubiquitous as social communication tools today. Under-
standing what impacts users’ decisions to disclose and
use privacy settings are important for practical and theo-
retical development. Knowledge of factors that encour-
age protective behaviors may help researchers and edu-
cators to develop effective programs for instructing users
about online media, and the ways in which they can pro-
tect their personal information and the information of
others when online. Theoretically, expanding our know-
ledge is important for developing applicable theories of
online communication as well as understanding the spe-
cific social context of social networking settings. The
present study provided evidence that both media format
and gender can impact on disclosure decisions.
One key difference in the present study was that par-
ticipants constructed a profile for another person. While
there is great concern surrounding over-disclosure onlin e
[21,22,24], the current study highlighted how, contrary to
previous research, users chose to censor disclosu res abou t
another person more when online as compared to tradi-
tional hard copy, paper formats. No known studies have
examined decisions regarding disclosure of others in so-
cial networking sites, yet sharing information about oth-
ers is a function common in social communication net-
works, therefore ,the current study offers a first step in
extending our understanding of disclosure of others. Re-
search comparing disclosure of information for the self
and for others within actual FacebookTM profiles may
further contribute to the understanding of disclosure in
social networking sites. The present study also demon-
strated that privacy setting use was not synchronous with
disclosure decisions and that much more work is needed
to understand decisions related to privacy in online con-
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