Teens may be secretive about their internet interactions, but they need to be protected from online dangers. We explore ways to establish trust and encourage safer behavior on the internet.
By Kim Key
When did you start depending on the internet for entertainment, communication, and information? Given the reader demographics for PCMag.com, it’s safe to assume many of you were already adults by the time social media and online multiplayer gaming started dominating the zeitgeist. I became an adult during the social media age, so I already had a well-established circle of friends I communicated with offline, but I also had the option to seek out new friends and new experiences online.
Separating offline and online friends isn’t really possible for today’s kids. Teens are connected to everything and everyone online at all times. Kids use the internet all day at school, and when they come home, the online world is where they consume many forms of entertainment, establish relationships, and begin creating their personal identities. According to a global survey from McAfee, many of today’s kids began using the internet regularly on their mobile devices between ages 15 and 16. That’s pretty early to be given complete access to everything the internet contains.
I spoke with Sachin Puri, vice president of marketing for McAfee, about the results of the security company’s 2022 Connected Family Study. He told me kids want to avoid common online dangers such as cyberbullying, online account theft, and unauthorized use of personal data, but they may not know how to stay safe. Puri said, “Of the people surveyed, 73% of the children said they look to their parents for resources to help them stay protected online.”
Teens want to be protected online, so they make that job easy for their parents, right? Of course not. The study shows that more than half of the teen respondents (59%) say they hide their online activity by clearing their browser histories, hiding or deleting chat messages and videos, browsing in incognito mode, using a device their parents don’t check, or simply lying or omitting details about what they are doing online in conversations with their parents.
So, what can parents do to protect their secretive teens while they’re online?
The best answer to the question above is likely a little different for every family, but it should probably all start with a long chat. Puri said, “Parents have to create an environment where kids feel comfortable for these open and transparent conversations about online activity. Understanding the habits and behavior of family members online is only going to help everybody in the family. It may be a conversation about limiting the time on gaming devices, or it may be a conversation about installing software to keep everybody protected.”
Next, parents need to consider the family’s online safety routines. The survey showed just 56% of parents say they protect their smartphone with a password, and that number drops to 42% for smartphones owned by their children. Failing to protect devices or online accounts with the best security available can result in data theft if an unlocked smart device is lost or stolen or if accounts are compromised. Use a password manager to keep track of all of your family’s online credentials, install an antivirus to keep kids from accidentally infecting your home devices with malware while they browse, and use parental control software to block kids from accessing dangerous websites in the first place.
Finally, Puri told me that teaching all kids how to respond to threats such as cyberbullying, hacking, and phishing attempts is important. He said, “Our study finds girls are usually more protected by their parents online than boys, but it is boys who encounter more issues online. About 23% of the parents say they will check the browsing and email history on a PC of their daughter, aged 10 to 14. For boys, it’s only 16%. This disparity appears again where 22% of parents restrict access to certain sites for girls and only 16% for boys. We have to do better. We have to protect all children. I recommend that parents have a plan so that you can set the priorities of what steps need to be taken as a family together.”
What will your family plan look like? Here’s a list of six action items to get you started:
Antivirus is a cornerstone of online protection, but a software security suite that covers both your computer and mobile devices provides a wider safety net. The best security suites come bundled with firewall protection, a password manager, phishing detection, and a VPN.
McAfee’s study found that 15% of children experienced attempted account theft, while 28% of parents reported it happening to them. An identity protection service monitors your family’s accounts and personal info for unauthorized or suspicious activity.
Lock down your family’s mobile devices with a PIN or other protection like facial recognition or a fingerprint scan. For apps, use multi-factor authentication wherever possible.
Use a unique password for each account. This makes it more difficult for hackers to compromise multiple accounts. A password manager will do all the work by creating and storing strong, unique passwords for you.
Updating your operating systems and apps will keep you current with the latest features and enhancements and help you keep one step ahead of hackers as well. Many updates to operating systems and apps include security fixes and improvements that can keep bad actors from taking advantage of any exploits or loopholes on your devices.
When talking with your kids about their day, weave in a few questions about what’s happening online. What are their favorite games and apps right now? What shows are they watching? Is there a funny post or video they want to share? These questions will help you understand their world a bit better and will help teens become more comfortable talking with their parents about their private online lives.