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Cybersecurity Habits: A Product of Generation or Experience?

By James Robinson, Ph.D., Dept. of Communication and Abby Papenfus, Graduate Assistant

Our research group recently presented at the Ohio Information Security Conference, focusing on how Millennials and Generation Z feel about technology, privacy, and cybersecurity. Our interest stemmed from a recurring question we’ve been asked by IT professionals: how do generational differences impact employee Cyber-Mindfulness™?

Our research supplements previous generation literature, which posits that -- contrary to popular opinion -- Millennials (born between 1981 & 1998) and Gen Z (born in 1999 or later) still value privacy. Our findings are also consistent with previous research that suggests Gen Z has the least concern about privacy when paying with mobile apps and when using social media. In general, we found that Millennials were more concerned about privacy than Generation Z.

In addition to analyzing the differences between Millennials and Generation Z, we also compared 18-year-old high school students with 18-year-old college students. If cybersecurity differences were generational, then we’d expect the groups to feel similarly about privacy. What we learned, however, was illuminating.

Our findings:

  • 18-year-old college students were more concerned about privacy than 18-year-old high school students.
  • The college sample also felt a stronger sense of agency (a feeling of responsibility to others and the organization) than their high school counterparts.
  • High school students reported more confidence in institutions protecting their privacy than the 18-year-old students who were in college.

So what do these findings suggest?

  • Students who go to college receive training or gain experiences that their high school counterparts have not received. Perhaps because of these experiences, the 18-year-old college students are more aware of privacy concerns and less confident in institutions to protect personal information. Their additional experience might be as simple as reminders from the university's IT staff to use strong passwords. Nonetheless, it appears to make them more aware and more concerned about security issues.

What else?

  • We need to be careful when assuming differences are generational because they could be attributable to some other cohort effect. The availability of new communication technologies certainly has the potential to produce generational differences, but in many cases, the simplest explanation is that the differences are experiential.  

Research Methods

Method: 45 question online survey with four indexes comparing Gen Z & Millennials on cybersecurity issues

Sample: Convenience sample of 402 college students & 47 high school seniors taking college prep classes at a private Ohio high school in southwestern Ohio

For more information: Ohio Information Security Conference Handout

Our Team

Thomas Skill, Associate Provost & CIO, UDit

Abby Papenfus, Research Associate & Graduate Assistant, UDit

Jamie Luckett, Associate Director, UDit

James Robinson, Professor, Dept. of Communication

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Third and final part of a series that explores the communication field's role in IT practices.
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