Survey: The Internet Habits Americans Are Hiding 


From TikTok binges and YouTube rabbit holes to Instagram stalking and WebMD deep dives — we do so many things online that we probably wouldn’t want to admit some of them to most people.

In fact, we just conducted a survey among 1,000 Americans and found that just over 7 in 10 (71%) would be embarrassed if someone they knew had access to their lifetime internet browsing history. We dug in to see what exactly Americans have to hide.

man hiding behind laptop

Key Findings

  • Over half of Americans would rather give up their smartphone for a year than have their browsing history published online.
  • About a third of Americans (32%) would be embarrassed if people saw how much time they spent on social media.
  • Of those who clear their browsing histories, 30% do so to hide them from their spouses.
  • Over the past year, 2 in 3 Americans have become more uncomfortable sharing opinions online.

The Most Embarrassing Things Americans Do on the Internet

Many Americans are self-conscious about what they do online. Of the Americans we surveyed, 40% would be embarrassed if other people saw how much time they spend reading about certain things online, and about a third (32%) would be embarrassed if people saw how much time they spent on social media.

Nearly half (45%) of Americans say the most embarrassing things they do online are look up people they know to get details about their lives and watch embarrassing content. The internet can also be a treasure trove of intimate information: Over a third of Americans said they search for relationship, health and other personal advice online (38%) as well as research their medical symptoms (36%). 

When Americans look up people they know, they’re most curious to find out what they look like (56%) and what their lifestyles are like (54%). 

the embarrassing things Americans do on the internet

The top five websites Americans are most embarrassed to spend time on are: 

  1. PornHub
  2. Reddit
  3. WebMD
  4. TMZ
  5. Buzzfeed

We found that men tend to be more embarrassed about their porn habits: 51% of those we surveyed said they were most embarrassed to spend time on PornHub, compared to 27% of women. On the other hand, women might be more ashamed of their health-related queries. Of the women we surveyed, 16% reported they were most embarrassed to spend time on WebMD, versus 7% of men.

Americans Want to Hide Their Online Activity, Especially from Family and Friends

Though Americans admitted what they’re embarrassed about to us, they really don’t want to disclose their habits to anyone else. A majority (54%) of Americans would rather give up their smartphone use for a year than have their lifetime internet browsing history published online. 

Now, imagine your family members seeing what you’ve been searching for. Of those surveyed, 43% would be most embarrassed if their parents saw their browsing history. Accordingly, we found 2 in 3 Americans clear their browsing histories, and a third do so at least weekly. In addition, just over 7 in 10 Americans (71%) use incognito or private searches — and more than half (57%) use them at least weekly. 

Americans hide their online activity from the people closest to them

Americans clear their browser histories and use incognito searches for slightly different reasons. A majority (79%) use these search modes to prevent data tracking from third parties — not to hide from their families or friends. 

But when it comes to clearing browser histories, hiding from family is definitely a priority. Of Americans who clear their histories, 30% do so to hide it from their partners; 23% clear their histories to hide them from their kids; and 22% from their parents. By contrast, bosses and coworkers aren’t a big concern. 

Younger Americans Aren’t Proud of All the Time They Spend Online

We know Gen Z and Millennial Americans use the internet much differently — and often more extensively — than Gen Xers or Baby Boomers. With those differences come markedly different attitudes about their habits. More than 2 in 5 (45%) young adults are embarrassed about the time they spend reading about certain things online, compared to 26% of older Americans. Plus, nearly 2 in 3 (65%) young adults would be embarrassed if people knew who they looked up online or saw the kinds of content they watch. 

Younger Americans aren’t proud of all the time they spend online

Young adults are about twice as likely as older Americans to spend time looking for people, content, and advice online. They’re also big online shoppers: Over a third (35%) take advantage of ecommerce options to shop for products that they wouldn’t buy in person, compared to just 17% of older Americans. 

Part of growing up with social media is looking back on a relatively long history of posts — and content doesn’t always age well. Nearly half (47%) of young adults have deleted a social media post because they’re embarrassed about who might see it, versus 29% of older Americans. 

Young adults aren’t just worried about what their parents might find on their computers or cell phones. Nearly 1 in 3 (32%) young adults clear their browsing histories to hide them from their partners, and nearly a third (28%) do so to hide their habits from their friends.

Women Play the Comparison Game, While Men Worry About Their Partners Seeing What They’re up To

Women and men check out people they know on social media about the same amount, but women (38%) are more embarrassed about the time they spend on social media than men (26%) are. It’s no surprise, then, that women are more likely to hide the content they’ve shared. Over half (52%) have hidden posts on social media, compared to 43% of men. 

Compared to men, women are more interested in what people they know are up to, and use the internet to track down information. Of women, 62% look up people they know to see what their lifestyles are like; 40% look at their jobs; and 34% check out whether or not they have kids.  

What women and men are hiding online

While women are making comparisons, men are fretting about their partners finding out what they’re up to. When it comes to browsing history, 3 in 4 men are embarrassed about theirs, and 1 in 4 said they’d be most embarrassed if their partners saw their browsing histories (versus 18% of women). Men are more likely to clear their browsing histories for privacy than for maintenance purposes. A third clear their histories to hide them from their partners specifically. 

Nearly a third (29%) of men would be embarrassed if their partners saw what they look at on social media, compared to 20% of women. Men are also a bit more likely to hide social media posts from partners than women (27% vs. 21%) and even use anonymous social media accounts more than women (49% vs. 43%). 

It’s Getting Scarier for Americans to Share Their Opinions Online 

All in all, Americans are scared to share their opinions online, and 67% have become more uncomfortable sharing in the past year, while 38% worry someone might use these opinions they share against them. Interestingly, this concern doesn’t vary significantly by party or gender. 

However, men and people with conservative viewpoints feel they face more discrimination. Men are more likely than women to say they’ve been penalized or banned for violating terms of conduct on social media (15% vs. 7%). Republicans are more likely than Democrats to report penalization or banning (17% vs. 8%).

Perhaps it’s no surprise that anonymous social media use is growing more popular. Nearly half (47%) of Americans report using social apps anonymously, especially Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram. Americans said anonymous accounts allow them to maintain their privacy (78%) and talk more freely (43%). 

Conclusion

Americans admit to doing a lot of embarrassing stuff online. For many of them, clearing browsing histories and using incognito searches is all about maintaining privacy — not from hackers, but from friends and family. If you’re wondering about more ways you can protect your privacy or even just streamline your computer’s functionality, check out our computer tips. 

Methodology: We conducted a survey among 1,001 Americans on June 21, 2022. The gender breakdown was 49% Men, 48% Women, and 3% Nonbinary. The age breakdown was 10% Baby Boomers, 20% Gen X, 45% Millennials, and 24% Gen Z. The political party affiliation was 48% Democrat, 33% Independent, 17% Republican, and 2% Other. 

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