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12 Mar. 2015

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Much of the media coverage surrounding young people and online social networks has focused on the type and amount of personal information teens make available on these networks. We set out to examine how teens understand their privacy through several lenses: by looking at the choices that teens make to share or not to share information online, by examining what they share, the context in which they share it and their own assessment of their vulnerability. In order to understand these issues better, we asked a series of questions both in representative national phone surveys and in focus groups that gauged teens’ sense of privacy relating to sharing personal information.
Just 7% of online teens say they post their full name, a photo of themselves, their school name, and the city or town where they live to their online profile. We conducted a similar activity in our focus groups in which we asked teens to categorize various pieces of personal information into groups that were never okay to share, which were okay to share under certain circumstances and those which were almost always okay to share online. Teens with profiles are more likely to share certain pieces of personal information offline than online. In an offline environment, for almost every piece of information we presented that is not related to internet-based contact, boys are much more likely than girls to say that it is okay to share personal information (like your last name, city and state where you live, cell phone number, school name, etc).
For almost every piece of information except home phone number, older teens are much more likely than younger teens to say it is okay to share it offline with someone you just met. Teens are more likely to say it is okay to share certain types of personal information in an offline social situation than they are to actually post that information to their online profile.
Teens who have online profiles are generally more likely to say it is okay to give out certain pieces of personal information in offline situations than they are to have that information actually posted to their profile. In our focus groups, teens told us they are generally more comfortable sharing information at a party because they have much more contextual information in an offline setting than an online one – they can see the person, their mannerisms, and tone of voice. Boys are more likely than girls to report posting fake information to their online profiles. Rural teens are more likely to be fully truthful on their online profiles than their suburban or urban compatriots.
Put another way, 48% of rural teens say they have posted fake information to their online profiles, while 59% of suburban teens and 58% of urban teens have done the same.
Teens struggle to find the balance point between sharing details that will facilitate meeting peers with similar interests and keeping themselves safe from unwanted online attention.
Younger teens are more likely to believe that they are very difficult to find online from the information posted in their online profile, while older teens believe that they are relatively difficult to find, but that a determined person could eventually track them down.
Girls are less likely than boys to say that they are easy to find online from their profiles. Teens who post a significant amount of false information on their profile are unsurprisingly more likely to say it would be very difficult for someone to find out who they are from their online profile. Not only is what teens choose to share or not in online profiles important, but also how teens choose to share that information by making profiles or online materials public or private.
As noted previously by the Project, a large number of teens with online profiles in some way obscure or restrict access to their online information.
Teens with parents who know that they have a profile online are more likely than teens with unaware parents to have their profile visible only to friends.
Teens who have an online profile are somewhat more likely to have parents who have rules about the kinds of personal information they can share with people they talk to on the internet.
While just 14% of all online teens say they have uploaded a video file online where others can watch it, 22% of social networking teens report video posting.
Whether in an online or offline context, teenagers do not fall neatly into clear-cut groups when looking at the type of information they are willing to disclose or the ways they restrict access to the information that they do share.


Social network use and online self-presentations for teens combine the difficult recipe of tremendous facility with and enjoyment of technology, and a desire to meet, make and reinforce friendships, during a time of personal growth, risk-taking and testing. For many online teens, particularly those with profiles, privacy choices are made manifest in the information shared in a social networking profile. We wanted to understand how teens make decisions to share information both in online and offline contexts.
Girls are more likely than boys to say that they have posted photos both of themselves and of their friends onto their online profile.
When teens, particularly girls, talked about protection of their privacy online, their main concern was the protection of their physical self – if a piece of information could easily lead to them being contacted in person, girls would not share it readily. Older teens ages 15-17 with online profiles are more likely than younger teens to post photos of themselves or friends to their profile as well as share their school name online. Teens with online profiles have a greater tendency to say it is okay to share where they go to school, their IM screen name, email address, last name and cell phone number with someone they met at a party, when compared with the percentage who actually post that information online. Of all teens with online profiles, 56% of teens have posted at least a few pieces of false information. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of boys with online profiles say that they’ve got at least a little false information posted to that profile, while just half (50%) of girls say the same. Half of younger teens think that it would be very difficult to figure out who they are from their online profile. Social network users and others who share content online can take advantage of the privacy and restriction tools offered within the system where they share their personal information or self-created content.
Indeed, a total of 66% of all teens who have ever created an online profile in some way restrict access to their profiles, including making them private, password protecting them, hiding them completely from others or even taking them offline. Nearly two-thirds (62%) of teens whose parents are aware of their online profile say that their profile is only available to friends, while 46% of teens whose parents do not know about their online profile say they have set their profiles to private. Fully 89% of parents of teens with profiles say they have rules about the personal information their child can share with people they talk to online, compared with 81% of parents of online teens who do not have profiles. Digital photos, often one of the anchoring elements of online profiles and blogs, are widely posted online by teens in many different contexts.
Older girls are even more protective of their images, with 49% of photo-posting girls restricting access most of the time vs. And in a striking departure from the trends observed with photo posting, online teen boys are almost twice as likely as online teen girls to post video files (19% vs. It is also important to note that when teens say that they have restricted access to content they have posted online, it may mean making it visible only to friends, and it also may mean flagging it as content that is only appropriate for adults.
All of these factors combined with the myriad ways that teens can control the release of their online information paint a grey and fragmented portrait of teens and online privacy. Of course, material shared in a profile is just one of a larger number of places where information is shared online – but it provides a snapshot into the choices that teens make to share in a relatively public and persistent online environment. Two scenarios were presented in our survey and focus groups: First, we asked teens about the kinds of information they might consider sharing with someone they had just met at a party or other social situation, and we followed with questions regarding the information teens have shared on an online profile. When asked in focus groups whether they had any concerns about publicly posted photos, most teens said they were not worried about risks to their privacy.
However, most of these teens who include their full name restrict access to their profile; just 6% of online teens and 11% of profile-owning teens post their first and last name to a publicly viewable profile that is visible to anyone online. Boys are more likely to say they have posted the city or town where they live, their last name and their cell phone number when compared with girls.


Older girls are more likely than any other group to share photos of friends, while younger girls are more likely than younger boys to have shared information about their blog on their profile.
Information that is regarded as more private when sharing in person includes a link to your blog, your cell phone number and most private of all – your home phone number. The only piece of information they are more likely to share online is the city and state where they live.
This can mean password protecting an account, blog or other online sharing space, or it can mean making a profile or blog posting private so that only those on a friends list or in an online network can see what you’ve posted beyond a few basic pieces of information.
With the proliferation of digital cameras and cell phone cameras, in particular, many teens have the means to document the most mundane and profound moments of their lives.
Likewise, teens that are online frequently are more engaged with photo posting; while 59% of those who go online daily post photos, just 35% of teens who go online several times per week have uploaded photos. And sometimes that audience responds to the content posted online, making the content as much about interaction with others as it is about sharing with them. They felt that, for the most part, there was not enough information in the photos posted, even when combined with the information contained in the profile, to compromise their privacy or safety. Three in ten teens say they have posted their last name, their email address, or a video file to their online profile.
Teens do not always have the same level of familiarity with their audience and they are cognizant of these differences between online interactions and real-life ones. Eight percent of teens with online profiles say that most or all of the information on the profile is fake. They can then share these photos with family, friends or the world at large by posting them online to their profiles or to popular photo sharing sites like Flickr.
In our focus groups, young women and the younger boys told us that their main concern when thinking about what information to share online was how easy it would be to physically contact them in person because of access to that information. A mere 2% of teens have posted their ultra-personal cell phone number to their online profile. Teens from small towns and suburbs felt similarly about revealing their city or town online, while urban teens felt much more at ease posting their location. Older girls are more seasoned posters, with 67% of them uploading photos, compared with 48% of older boys. Overall, 57% of all online teens have watched a video on a video sharing site like YouTube or GoogleVideo. Teens make a serious distinction between online harassment and physical harm, and that distinction informs many of the choices they make to share online. In comparison, 73% of teens who use social networking post photos compared with just 16% of non-SNS teens. Younger girls and boys are equally as likely to upload photos; 39% of younger girls ages 12-14 upload photos while 33% of younger boys do so. Another 45% think that they are difficult to find, but that someone could eventually figure out who they are, and 29% think that they are easy to find from their online profiles.
Many, but not all, teens are aware of the risks of putting information online in a public and durable environment.



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