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How to talk to teens about online security

Teenagers today are digital natives who are comfortable in an online environment. But comfortable does not always mean safe. Adolescents are known for their tendency to engage in risky behavior, and the Internet opens them up to a new set of dangers.

That's where parents can make a difference. When mom or dad check in with their teen about their online activities, share security tips, and keep lines of communication open-they set up their child for a lifetime of safer digital activity.

Online dangers faced by teens

Because they have grown up with the Internet at their fingertips, many teens are aware of security issues, and some have already experienced the dangers that can come with being online. Just over a third of teens report that someone has been mean or cruel to them online in the past year. Teens worry about online safety and responsibility as well: nearly half are concerned they could unknowingly spread misinformation on social media or other websites.

While teens are right to worry about perpetuating false information and their concern indicates that they’re ready for dialogue about other risks. The most common risks are threats to their devices and data and threats to their privacy and personal security.

Data and devices

Like most people these days, teenagers sometimes seem glued to their smartphones, and the idea of losing control of it – or laptop or tablet – is naturally distressing. A virus or a privacy breach could effectively put their device and the data on it at risk. For example, criminals might send a phishing email with a link that downloads malware onto a device or tricks them into sharing their password. From there, they can access banking, medical, and other sensitive information or steal an identity. This can be especially damaging your teen is using a family shared device, therefore putting everyone’s information at risk.

Privacy and personal security

With 70 percent of girls and nearly half of boys using social media frequently, kids aged 13 to 17 are accustomed to carrying on friendships in the virtual world. Yet there's a potential dark side to sharing so much of their personal life online. Young people can be bullied or harassed by friends, classmates, or strangers. They can be exposed to pornographic, violent, or otherwise disturbing content. They can receive unwanted attention and even be lured to meet strangers offline under false pretenses. And they might also fall victim to a social engineering attack, a technique that exploits basic human psychology to gain access to private information.

What to tell your teens about online security

There is a mountain of information about how to stay secure online. This is good news, but it also makes it difficult to find the most important tips to pass along to your teen. For a more digestible approach, focus on three key areas: security measures, research, and critical thinking.

1. Take all security measures.

Devices, apps, and software come with a range of safety features installed. Tell your teen to take full advantage of privacy settings, anti-virus software, updates, and passwords to unlock smartphones. Using these protections helps ensure the people who see your private information are a select group. Viruses, malware, and privacy breaches are less likely to work if teens have enabled behind-the-scenes automatic security processes.

Teens should pay special attention to their passwords. Advise your child to choose a password at least 15 characters long and to vary passwords across accounts.  Although it can be tempting to do so, teens (and adults) should never share their passwords and should change them periodically.

Suggest to your teen that they set up multi-factor authentication, particularly for financial accounts. This provides an extra layer of security because you need to confirm your identity in more than one way before you can log in.

2. When in doubt, research

Despite the hazards that come with a hyper-connected world, there are advantages, such as readily available information. Taking a few minutes to research a new app or website could save your teen weeks or months of hassle as they try to reverse the damage wrought by a virus or identity theft.

Tell your teen that before they click on a new offer online, in email, or on social media, they should make it a practice to search for reviews about it. If the reviews are negative or they can’t find enough information about the product, company, or app , they should consider it unsafe.

3. Practice critical thinking

The online security environment is constantly changing, making good judgement the best defense across all corners of the internet. Talk with your teen about the importance of listening to that inner voice urging them to stop and think.

Here are the types of situations that should give them pause:

  • Receiving an email or text message with a link they didn't request claiming to be for one of their financial accounts, to view a receipt for a recent purchase, or the status of a package delivery. This could be a phishing scam.
  • Using public WiFi to access any financial account information, from bank to credit cards. This could expose their account data.
  • Seeing a flashy ad claiming to show celebrity news and photos or reveal who's been gossiping about them. Clicking on the ad—which is what's known as "clickbait”—could take them to a website that will install malware on their device.

In each of these cases, and in similar situations, your teen should consider what might happen and whether the offer is too good, or too easy, to be true.

The right parental mindset

The reality is that many teenagers are spending time online and encountering risks, whether they admit this to parents or not. It is difficult, if not impossible, to control how they spend their time; it's a battle that can feel futile given their developmental age. It can also feel overwhelming since teens are often on top of the latest online trends and parents can feel like they’re constantly playing catch-up. 

Instead, focus your efforts on creating a supportive, safe environment in which your teens can discuss their online life with you. Rather than a one-time conversation, your communication should be an ongoing back-and-forth about their experiences.

Finally, remind your teen (and yourself) that cybersecurity is a concern for everyone these days. Even large corporations and governments fall victim to digital criminals. If your teen does get into a sticky situation, they are not necessarily to blame and they shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed.

As with any repeat behavior, being safe online can become a habit. Give your teen the gift of becoming security conscious now, when they have a safety net to back them up. Their future online life at work, at home, and in relationships will be the better for it.

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