The online world offers a wealth of resources for education, entertainment, and connection with other people. Unfortunately, the internet also poses new dangers, and those dangers threaten teens especially.
There are plenty of horror stories: one boy discovered that an entire website had been set up to denigrate him and encourage others to harass him at school. Another young woman was abducted by a man who had posed as a teen online, traced her to her home through the personal information she’d given out, and then stalked her to discover when she’d be home alone.
Even the non-horror stories are troubling: one young woman found that an entire suite of social media accounts had been set up to impersonate her online. She wasn’t harmed personally by this crazy scheme, but others are less lucky: half a million teens have had their financial histories blemished from the start due to identity theft. And online scams abound—from prom dresses ordered online that turn out to be cheap knock-offs to software that secretly downloads itself and steers browsers to dangerous corners of the internet.
Online life is as fraught with peril as real life, and it can be much harder for parents to monitor the risks their kids are taking in the virtual world. But as with the other challenges of growing up, getting knowledgeable about internet safety for teens, talking over your concerns with the teens in your life, and arming them against the obvious dangers can build your relationships with them—and prepare them for adulthood.
Start with the Hardware
You should start your child internet protection plan with one of the most vulnerable aspects of your teen’s online life, and one that may not be obvious because it’s there in plain sight. But if your teen has a laptop of their own (or if they routinely borrow yours) it can lead to a world of trouble. Left unattended in a public place, a laptop—which may offer unfettered access to e-mail accounts, personal information, and even vital passwords and credit card numbers—can be gone in seconds. So if you want to boost your teen’s cybersecurity, start by protecting their laptop.
At a bare minimum, insist that they set up password protection on their computer. This may act as a deterrent: a thief having to choose between unattended laptops may not choose one that’s locked down with a password. The next step is a physical lock: computer cables are inexpensive, and will allow your teen to leave their seat at the library or a coffee shop without having to decide whether or not to bring their computer into the bathroom.
You can go an extra step by turning on the laptop’s locator function, which comes as a native feature in Apple OS and iOS, with PC versions available for installation on other platforms. This will allow you to locate the computer if it’s lost, and delete the data on the computer if it falls into the wrong hands.
Finally, you should talk to your teen about the type of information they leave on their laptop. It may be tempting to record all their vital passwords and other useful information, but of course doing so puts them at risk if someone steals it or manages to access it in some other way. At the very least, any files that they use to store this kind of sensitive information should be password protected.
Malware, Viruses, and Spyware
Protecting your computer means much more than physical protection, as important as that is. Much of the information on your computer can also be accessed by malicious software that can make its way onto your hard drive any time you connect to the internet, and sometimes when you’re connected to any network at all.
First, some definitions:
Malware is a generic term for all malicious software. Among the types of malware is the Virus, a piece of software that will secretly enter a computer’s operating system and manipulate it into actions that damage it or hinder its performance. Trojan horses are apparently innocuous applications or utilities that are used by hackers to insert malware into your operating system. Spyware is malicious software that allows a third party to take information off your computer without your knowledge.
The frightening thing about malware is that you may not even know it’s on your computer until you look for it. If your teen complains about their computer’s performance, though, or if they claim that their web browsers are “acting weird” (prompting browsers to flood the screen with pop-up windows and erratic results on search engines are two common symptoms of computers infected with spyware), take action immediately.
Fortunately, there are some straightforward ways to protect your teen’s computer: anti-virus software will take care of many of the greatest threats to your computer. Some manufacturers, like Apple, will provide anti-virus software for free, as will many internet service providers. Note, though, that anti-virus software needs to be updated to be effective.
What’s more, if your teen downloads a trojan horse, it’s entirely possible that they’ll give the harmless-looking software all the permission it needs to damage your computer or steal vital information, including passwords and credit card numbers. So in addition to a robust virus detection program, it’s essential that you warn teens—and other users of your household computers—to be aware of the risks of downloading software from the internet, and to be leery of downloading any type of application from a non-reputable vendor.
Protect Your Mobile Hardware, Too
Many of the same precautions you take with your laptops should be taken with mobile phones, tablets, and other devices that might contain similar types of sensitive information, or might be used to access personal information via the internet. Encourage your teen to use password protection and enable the device locator function on every device they own.
At the same time, it’s not a good idea for teens to allow apps in general to use location services, since these may reveal where they live. Many devices will allow you to select what apps can use your location, so it might be worth the time to sit down with your teen and look at their phone or tablet’s location settings—to make sure, for example, that when they put a picture of their dog up on Instagram, they won’t also post your home address.
Everyone loves the camera function on their phones, but they present another risk that comes with mobile devices. Even with the location function turned off, photos taken and shared online can, by sending landmarks out over social networks, provide almost as much location information as a phone’s location services function. Suggest to your teen that they take some care in choosing what shots to share, so they don’t reveal too much about where they live.
So why is it so risky for a teen to reveal where they are? Revealing credit card numbers, or passwords to online merchant accounts, presents an obvious risk. But why would an address—or a photograph that gives their address away—cause problems?
Unfortunately, teens are just as susceptible to identity theft as adults, and for teens the consequences of someone using their information to apply for a credit card or access other financial resources can be just as bad, if not worse, than the consequences for an adult. Since teens don’t have a credit history already, having an identity thief run down their credit rating can make building a decent credit history an uphill battle from the very start.
Even apparently innocuous information, like an address or a birth date—information that many people, not just teens, will sometimes include in their social media profiles—can be enough for a criminal to apply for a credit card, for example. And while you may stay on top of what they post on social media, teens, like adults, can also give out that information in an act of forgetfulness. Online quizzes or surveys are sometimes really just mechanisms by which scam artists try to get useful intel (a quiz might ask “what’s your mother’s maiden name?” for example, in order to get the answer to one of the most popular security questions).
Teens should be cautioned against putting up too much identifying information online. Birthdates are out; addresses should be, too. Even if the information doesn’t seem like it’s going to be collected in any permanent way, there’s still a chance that it will be, and that it will be used by a scam artist to destroy a teen’s financial reputation before they’ve even had a chance to build it.
Scams and Online Shopping
Online scam artists have other schemes besides identity theft, however. Online shopping presents its own dangers. In the notorious case mentioned above, a teenaged girl thought she was buying an expensive prom dress at a bargain price only to discover that the dress she received in the mail didn’t match the online photo at all. It was cheaply made, poorly fitted, and impossible to return.
Again, these are risks that even adults fail to see in time, but you can help your teen avoid getting taken in by insisting on having a look at any purchase they make online. You can also insist that any sales go through reputable vendors like Amazon, or that, at the very least, they go through reputable sales platforms like eBay, where it’s possible to get purchase protection and the site’s management provides tools and assistance in resolving customer complaints.
Some scams involve more than just a single purchase. Teens should, for example, be aware of one scam that promises “free” ringtones, but charges a high monthly fee that the teen might not be aware of until it shows up on your credit card statement.
Both these online scams involve disreputable businesses. But some online shopping risks are harder to spot. The teen years are probably too late for the “I didn’t know” excuse for in-app purchases, the $800 iTunes bills that are the stuff of legend. But some smartphone apps involve “subscriptions” that it’s easy to forget about, and that can ding your credit card for three, four, or five dollars on a weekly basis.
So it makes sense to review your accounts on iTunes or other app marketplaces to make sure such subscriptions aren’t adding up. If they are, the best recourse is just to mention them to your teen and ask them to be more careful in the future.
Finally, there are ways to limit your teen’s online spending. iTunes offers an “allowance” feature that will deposit a set amount in an iTunes account on a regular basis rather than simply giving the account unlimited access to a credit card. Many online marketplaces, from Amazon to Google Play, offer gift cards that can be redeemed online (this approach also keeps teens using more reputable retailers). Many online retailers will also accept cash cards—that is, what are essentially prepaid credit cards–as payment. And if you’re interested in high-tech solutions, you might want to look into VeeLoop, an app that allows your teen to seek your approval for items in their virtual shopping carts before an online vendor processes their purchase.
Social Media: Online and in Public
As bad as they are, scams and malware aren’t the only online dangers. Social media has dramatically expanded the amount of their lives that teens can live online. And while social media allows teens to keep up with friends and family, even across vast distances, a lot of life’s dangers have followed them online as well.
Remember: social media is designed to convince users that they’re a part of a community. And while they do function as virtual communities, it’s easy to forget how many people can be privy to online conversations between friends. That’s why many teens may, without thinking, reveal vital information of the kind that’s most useful for ID theft and other criminal acts. Beyond that, wherever kids congregate, there’s a possibility for hurtful or inappropriate behavior, and the virtual world is no different.
There are many social networks, but here’s a look at some of the most popular.
Facebook: Many teens will have a profile on Facebook without using it much. Even so, Facebook’s platform allows for interactions with strangers, and its various levels of privacy and multiple means of sharing can make what seem like private interactions more public than a user may realize.
Twitter: Like Facebook, Twitter isn’t the most popular teen social media platform, and while teens should continue to take care with it—and parents should be aware that there’s no way to prevent teens from coming across adult material, and no particularly effective means of stopping harassment—it’s tamer than some online outlets.
Instagram: Instagram is much more popular among teens, and it’s based primarily on sharing images which people in a user’s network can then comment on. Because it’s based on images, Instagram can tempt teens to post embarrassing or inappropriate images online, but it has similar privacy settings to Facebook, which means that the user can exercise some control over who can see their content.
Snapchat: Snapchat takes Instagram a step further: it’s also based on sharing images presented as an occasion for comments. These images disappear after a few seconds, however, so things that appear on Snapchat may seem to be gone forever. As it happens, however, most devices can capture any images that appears on its screen. And while Snapchat now notifies users that when someone takes a screen grab of an image they’ve put up, some apps allow users to circumvent this feature.
As a result, Snapchat is even more likely to lure teens into thinking an inappropriate or embarrassing picture will never be seen again.
This may seem like an unmanageable array of platforms—and this list leaves out some other, less-used sites as well. But if you’re concerned about your teen’s online life, there are some easy ways to keep tabs on what they’re up to. You can ask what platforms they use most frequently and check their profile pages.
You can also use a search engine to search for your teen’s name and see what results you get: if their social media profiles appear in search results, they may not be using their privacy settings appropriately. If that’s the case—and even if it isn’t—sit down with your teen and look at each social network site’s privacy settings to make sure that no sensitive information or embarrassing material can come in reach of people they don’t know. And if you’re active on social media, one simple way to keep up with your teen’s online life is to follow or friend them yourself.
Given the various ways social media platforms make it easy to share photos, you may also want to talk to your teen about what constitutes “embarrassing” or “inappropriate.” It’s possible that they may have a different perspective than you, of course, but it’s also possible that they’re defining those terms without taking into consideration how far an image can spread, and how permanent it may be. Knowing that a future love interest, or an elderly relative, might someday see a comment or image they post online may change the teen’s perspective.
Meeting People Online: Stalkers and Predators
All parents fear the possibility of their child coming in contact with strangers who who mean to do them harm. The risk of that happening through online interactions, and through social media in particular, is very real. That’s because sensitive information isn’t only a boon to scammers hoping to profit off of identity theft: carelessly spread information, and thoughtless interactions with unknown people, can also put teens at risk of encountering stalkers, predators, and others who could harm them physically or emotionally.
One threat that’s easier to avoid is that of the stalker, a person who gradually gathers information about a person in order to harass them or violate their privacy. You should remind your teen that even the blandest photo can reveal information about their age, what school they go to, where they live, and even times that they’re most likely (or least likely) to be alone. Privacy settings may help prevent the wrong people from getting that information, but teens should also use that awareness to restrict what they’ll give away in their profiles, pictures, or in an ordinary exchange of comments or messages.
Predators—people who work to gain a youth’s confidence either in order to build an inappropriate relationship or in order to lure them into inappropriate behavior—are a bigger online safety concern. Many of the most popular social media sites or apps, including Instagram and Snapchat, are effectively electronic messaging services, and beyond the world of social media, teens can often get drawn into online forums, chat rooms, or other venues where they can have extended exchanges with people they don’t know.
These virtual interactions have been a boon for online predators: according to statistics put out by the FBI and United Nations, at any given time there are 750,000 predators online looking to foster inappropriate, and sometimes illegal, relationships with teens. And there have been bad outcomes: teens have been lured into abductions and into sexual situations, and have been subject to sexual assault as a result of relationships begun online. And there’s a chance that none of the exchanges leading up to such an outcome will be easily visible to parents.
One way to prevent such horror stories is simply to educate the teen. The website onlinesense.org, for example, offers a list of ways to recognize someone who’s trying to lead you into a potentially dangerous situation. For example, predators will:
- Want to have private conversations with their targets
- Insist that their online relationships be kept a secret
- Ask their targets to provide personal information, like their addresses, their full names, or phone numbers
- Tend to do some stalking online to uncover information about their targets—and then make a show of how much they know
- Ask their targets a barrage of questions in order to get their targets to release more personal information
- Try to convince their targets that everything they’re doing, and all the information they’re revealing, is perfectly normal
Many of these behaviors would, of course, be easily spotted as obnoxious or creepy if they were done by a stranger the teen met in person, and that’s probably the best way to communicate the warning signs here: ask the teen to imagine themselves alone in a strange place with a stranger pestering them with questions or telling them to keep their meeting a secret. Remind them, too, that in the online world, it’s easy for someone to assume an identity: the 12 year old girl mentioned at the beginning of this article had been convinced by her abductor that he was also a teen, even though he was in his mid thirties. So don’t just encourage your teen to imagine a stranger asking them questions: have them imagine a stranger wearing a mask.
If you suspect your teen may already be in contact with someone who doesn’t have their best interests at heart, it may be daunting to bring up the subject. Again, though, linking the issue to real life may be your best bet. You can, as you would with real acquaintances, ask to be (virtually) introduced. If a teen seems to be spending an inordinate amount of time in chat rooms, you can set limits as you would on any other social activity—and insist on being able to view browser histories in order to keep track. You can approach one of the teen’s trusted peers, older relatives, or mentors and ask them to do a reality check or inquire what’s going on. Teens often rebel against control, but they’re also often swayed by genuine and respectful concern.
When the Predators Aren’t Strangers: Online Bullying
Unfortunately your teen’s emotional well-being may not be threatened by strangers only. Online bullying is a real possibility as well, and can have devastating effects, leading to long-term problems with self-esteem. Bullying can also lead to depression and (in some tragic instances) suicide.
As with real-life bullying, the shame associated with the experience can make it difficult for a teen to seek help or advice. Because the online world provides harassers with potentially unassailable anonymity, this, too, can make the teen unwilling to speak out. So it’s important to look for signs. If your teen:
- Is avoiding online activities (such as gaming or social media) that they used to enjoy, and yet don’t seem to have traded these activities for something else they like to do
- Seems to be relieved when coming away from their computer or device, as if they’ve just had an unpleasant experience
- Seems to be routinely dismayed by messages they receive or by other interactions with people on their mobile device or computer
- Are suddenly becoming much more secretive about their online experiences
- Are showing signs of depression
They may be subject to bullying online.
If that’s the case, though, what can you do? You should, first of all, try to talk to your teen. According to Sameer Hinduja and Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center, your first step should always be to sit down, ask what’s going on, provide unconditional support without “freaking out,” and very much take a problem-solving approach to the situation. Document the abuse, be ready to report it to the authorities, and keep lines of communication open between you.
Understand, too, that even if your teen isn’t being bullied, they may very well know of someone who is. If you can, encourage your teen to report bullying, if only to you. And just in case, remind them that in many jurisdictions the online harassment that we call cyberbullying is actually a crime, and can have serious repercussions for them if they’re involved. Even if they never become a cyber bully themselves, the fact that bullying is illegal may be enough for them to convince friends or acquaintances not to join in when others do it.
How to Handle Gaming
One online community in which bullying is especially prevalent is the online gaming community. Not that bullying is an unavoidable feature of such games: many teens may find a valuable social outlet in the community that springs up around their favorite role-playing game, or around the online component of their favorite console games. What’s more, many games themselves teach valuable lessons about teamwork, problem-solving, and other important developmental skills.
At the same time, however, online games, just like neighborhood sports, can be an occasion for trash talk which then escalates into harassment or bullying. Especially for a teen whose social life revolves around their online community, the effect can be traumatic. As with other types of bullying, keep tabs on your teen’s mood and behavior, and try to look out for signs that you might have a problem. Nor is bullying the only risk that online games present. Often such games will include forums for online communication, and these forums can serve as tools for predators in exactly the same way that social media can.
Finally, like other online activities, online gaming can gradually take over more and more of a teen’s life until it becomes an addiction. If you’re concerned about this prospect, here are some tell-tale warning signs of internet gaming addiction:
- Obsessively thinking about gaming, even when the teen isn’t playing.
- Lying about gaming activities—to family and friends
- Deep distress when gaming activities are curtailed for any reason
- Lack of interest in other activities, and neglect of hygeine, schoolwork, or other responsibilities, whether in the household or outside of it.
If you suspect that your teen may be addicted to online gaming, the first approach—as always—is to talk to them. Try to set limits and seek to tie the privilege of gaming to any responsibilities they may be neglecting. If these approaches don’t work, you might want to try counseling or other professional help. A videogame addiction is unlikely to be as damaging or difficult to overcome as an addiction to alcohol or drugs, but soldiering on against it without help is just as likely to damage your relationship with your teen.
Should My Teen Have a Blog?
Absolutely! Blogging—and webcasting videos via YouTube—can be a great creative outlet, and may inspire your teen to acquire the skills and dedication of a successful blogger, or the technical savvy (and even greater dedication) that a successful video channel requires. What’s more, bloggers, Youtubers, and podcasters (people who disseminate audio content via iTunes or other platforms) can in rare instances earn money from their efforts, which adds a key incentive for teens to persevere.
At the same time, these outlets present some of the same dangers as other online activities. They can be a way for stalkers and predators to learn personal information about your teen, and—even more than social media—they put your teen’s actions, attitudes, and behaviors on public display, putting them at risk of later embarrassment or shaming, and even possible legal consequences if they say the wrong thing.
If your teen is putting content online, be sure to go over with them the various risks of putting out personal information on the internet. And you may also want to lay down some ground rules, such as requiring all content to get your approval before it’s put out for the rest of the world to see.
In General: Some Common Sense Guidelines
In a world full of screens, it may seem futile to fight them for your teen’s attention. And yet you are your teenager’s anchor to the real world, and you may be the only one in their lives seeking to protect them from life’s dangers. That being the case, here are some general internet safety tips you can try as you work to keep your teen safe online.
Insist that your teen employ privacy settings on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms.
If the teen uses a shared computer for their online life, make sure that computer stays in a common area in the house. This shouldn’t be done so you can look over their shoulders, but rather so you can get a glimpse of how their online life affects them (an essential for cyberbully prevention) and keep tabs on the amount of time they’re spending. If you’re concerned, this will also allow you to check their browser history.
Enforce general norms against screen use and online activity. “No phones at the table” is a good place to start, as is a set time to turn screens and phones off, enforced on school nights, or on any night when the teen needs to show up somewhere the next morning. If these limits turn out to be bigger battles than you expect, that will at least alert you to potential problems.
Resist allowing the teen to use screens or phones in their rooms, even if those devices are properly theirs. Phones may be too much of a battle (and may be impractical to enforce), but try to keep their gaming screens, tablets, or computers out. This will help them get better sleep, and will once again allow you to get a glimpse of how they’re conducting themselves online.
If you want to more closely monitor your teen’s online activities, consider taking advantage of some of the apps or software designed for that purpose, including Net Nanny, which allows you to control what websites your kids access, and will even warn you if your teen searches for an objectionable term. Secure Teen keeps call logs and allows you to read text messages. Teen Safe does all of this and more—including locking teens out of messaging when they’re driving and allowing you to track them via GPS.
In the end, remember that helping your teen through life’s challenges—online and offline—is as much about communication as it is about control. Given enough time and the endless resources of the internet, teens can usually circumvent even the best apps and cheat the tightest household restrictions. But they won’t be able to hide their emotions if they have a problem, and whatever happens they’re still going to want your approval. So take teens’ online lives seriously, but don’t forget that their online lives are still their lives, and part of the process by which they become adults.
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Online life is as fraught with peril as real life, and it can be much harder for parents to monitor the risks their kids are taking in the virtual world.