Teen Internet Safety: A Parents Guide

Callum Tennent
Callum TennentUpdated

The internet and smartphones are such a ubiquitous part of teen life, yet are part of a technology landscape that’s evolving so rapidly that it can feel completely alien to parents. From the dangers of screen addiction to cyberbullying and sexting, today’s teenagers have so much more to deal with than ever before. Parents please read and share our comprehensive guide to keeping your teenagers safe online so you can understand the issues and know how to help.

Teen Internet Safety Hero

What experts are saying about this guide

“The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) firmly believes that personal information is like money. Value it. Protect it. It is especially important that parents understand this reality as their teen-aged children are continuously managing complex online lives. It is critical that all caretakers learn as much as they can about the vulnerabilities and how to best help their kids.”

Russ Shrader, Executive Director , The National Cyber Security Alliance

“This comprehensive Parent's Guide to Teen Internet Safety is an excellent resource for every parent raising children and teens using any form of device from smartphones to home computers. The reality is that the Internet is a place teens spend a lot of their time, and it is up to parents to make sure they are guiding their teens in safe Internet use. This guide will help you do that.”

Feather Berkower, Founder , Parenting Safe Children

“The Megan Meier Foundation fully supports [this guide] to help educate students, parents, and professionals. We see all too often the destructive nature of bullying and cyberbullying, and believe in preventative measures through awareness and education. With valuable tools, information, and knowledge, we can better navigate our digitally evolving world.”

Alex King, Programme Manager, Megan Meier Foundation

The extraordinary rise of smartphones has led to a world in which teen depression is at peak levels, social media is considered as addictive as a drug, and digital footprints can shape your future. Online games are deliberately designed to be habit-forming, cyberbullying has reached endemic levels, and unsolicited advances from sexual predators are sadly more than just media headlines. Navigating a safe digital life is difficult, and teens are especially vulnerable.

But parents often underestimate the dangers associated with the internet and how they are experienced by teenagers. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about the most prominent dangers so you can identify them and take steps to reduce their risks.

We’ll cover the link between smartphones and mental health, the consequences of too much technology, and what you can do to protect your teen from cyberbullies, stalkers and scammers. You’ll also find information on the precautions you can take and the things you should be communicating with your teen.

Over half of all teens in the US are constantly online, navigating privacy breaches, harassment, and disturbing content. Help your children to lead safer digital lives – understand the threats they face, and equip yourself to deal with them.

Technology and Screen Addictions

45% of teenagers are online ‘almost constantly’ and 50% admit to feeling addicted to their devices

Almost half of teenagers in the US are online ‘almost constantly’, a figure that has almost doubled in the last few years. It’s no surprise that technology and screen addictions are a growing concern for parents. The number of teens checking their devices hourly is ever increasing, and more worryingly, over half of all teens with smartphones openly admit to feeling addicted to their devices.

How do teens become addicted to technology?

Recent neurological research may explain why some teens feel a compulsive need to stay connected. In short, seemingly innocent actions, like receiving a text, or a ‘like’ on Facebook, have come to affect reward areas in teenagers brains. Studies show how technologies like smartphones, and in particular the use of social media, can have the same effect on the pleasure systems of the brain in the same way that addictive substances can. Like other ‘rewards’, be it sugar or heroin, technology can cause an over-release of dopamine. This can lead to habit-forming, behavioural disorders.

How much screen time is too much screen time?

Is your teen spending too much time staring at a screen? Here are some warning signs for addiction to look out for:

  • Sharing everything on social media, seeking validation from friends or even strangers
  • Being unable to enjoy their experiences unless they are documenting it
  • Knowing everything about people they don’t know well in real life
  • Constantly comparing themselves with people online, resulting in jealousy and unhappiness
  • Feeling uncomfortable without access to their cell phone
  • Increased feelings of euphoria when accessing their device
  • Excessive craving and desire towards technological activities
  • Failure at controlling time spent on devices

The consequences of technology and screen addictions

  • Family conflicts

Around 35% of both teens and parents say they argue about device use on a daily basis, with parents expressing frustration at distracted and unengaged teens

  • Academic performance suffers

Experts say that technology is leading to multitasking that our brains can’t handle, having a direct affect on teen academic performance. A high percentage of teens admit to doing homework while simultaneously watching TV, scrolling through social media and replying to messages

  • Impact on social skills

Studies have shown how teens these days not only see their friends less, but also find it harder to have face-to-face interactions and develop social skills like empathy

  • Poor mental health

Extreme use of technology can disrupt normal patterns of behaviours and mood, leading to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and loneliness. Teens overusing electronic devices are also more likely to be at risk for suicide

  • Poor physical health

Eye strain, blurred vision and chronic neck and back pain are common consequences of spending too long looking at a screen for over extended periods of time

  • Sleep deprivation

Young people who spend more than five hours a day on electronic devices are 52% more likely to be sleep deprived, with potential consequences for both physical and mental health

Tips to help cut down technology use

  1. Make rules Help your teen make rules to reduce the time they spend with their device. Work with them to designate technology free periods of time, and schedule break times where they can access their cell phones
  2. Tech free zones Allocate technology free zones in the family home. During mealtimes or family movie nights, have a box where everyone is encouraged to leave their cell
  3. Track activities To help cut down screen time, it can be helpful for your teen to track their cell phone use and review the amounts of time they are spending on specific activities. There are a number of applications available for this
  4. Seek help If you feel like your teen has an extreme addiction, they may benefit from external help. There are plenty of smartphone addiction therapies available, both on and off line, as well as treatment groups and help addiction centers. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help

Resources

Cyberbullying

34% of teenagers in the US say they have been cyberbullied at least once in their lives

The extraordinary rise of smartphone usage amongst teenagers has transformed the way they use the internet. But while the benefits of smartphones are plentiful, links between their usage and incidences of cyberbullying are more prominent than ever before.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is when someone intentionally, and often repeatedly, harasses, insults, mistreats or makes fun of another person online. Cyberbullying is considered a crime if it involves threats of violence, child pornography or sending sexually explicit messages or photos, stalking, and hate crime.

Cyberbullying can happen anywhere on the internet, from social media sites and forums, to online gaming chat rooms and messaging apps. While the statistic that 34% of teenagers admit to having been cyberbullied is terrifying enough, more worryingly only 5% of middle schoolers will tell their parents if they’re being victimised online.

What are the consequences of cyberbullying for victims?

  • Feeling anxious, depressed and powerless
  • Being excluded from social events and ostracized at school
  • Feeling humiliated and vulnerable
  • Feeling isolated
  • Becoming disinterested in school
  • Experiencing stress related physical illnesses
  • Feeling suicidal

Smartphones, cyberbullying and suicide

Rates of teen depression and suicide have increased dramatically in the last seven years. More and more experts are attributing this generational deterioration in mental-health to increased smartphone usage and the correlated rise of cyberbullying. Suicide rates for boys aged 15-19 have increased by more than 30%, while suicide rates for teenage girls are at a 40 year high.


Cyberbullied teen commits suicide, as reported by CBS News

While most commonly cyberbullying takes the form of name calling, harassment, gossip and exclusion, it can become something much more dangerous. Reports of cyberbullying ‘games’ in internet groups have surfaced in recent years. Linked to the suicides of numerous adolescent across Russia, India and Dubai, the ‘Blue Whale game’ begins as a series of daily challenges that start off innocently enough but end with an administrator blackmailing victims to commit suicide. While this is an extreme instance of cyberbullying, similar internet groups have reportedly been linked to the suicides of 130 young adults in Russia between 2015-2016.

Is your teen a victim of cyberbullying? Here are some signs you can watch out for:

  • Withdrawing from social situations
  • Displaying a fear of technology or suddenly using their devices less
  • Bad or uncharacteristic behaviour
  • Fake accounts being opened in your teens name
  • Your teen asking to have an account shut down
  • Signs of mental health deteriorating

What can you do if your teen is being cyberbullied?

If you suspect your teen is a victim of cyberbullying, you can take the following steps:

  1. Don’t engage with the cyberbullies Don’t retaliate, but do collect evidence – times, dates, descriptions and people involved should all be recorded. Taking photos or screenshots is also important
  2. Block the person who is cyberbullying On most social media sites you can change security and privacy settings to control who is able to contact you
  3. Report it Cyberbullying should never be taken lightly, and must be reported. You can reach out to online service providers and social media sites, law enforcements, and schools

Reporting cyberbullying

Reporting cyberbullying online

Cyberbullying more often than not violates terms of services on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. Report cyberbullying to the social media site so they can take action against users.

Reporting cyberbullying to law enforcement:

Although cyberbullying is considered a relatively new form of harassment and intimidation, nearly half of all US states include cyberbullying in their broader bullying laws. In California for example, cyberbullying is punishable by up to one year in jail and fines of up to $1,000. While cyberbullying may often be treated as a civil case rather than a criminal case, criminal harassment statutes can often provide a basis for bringing charges to severe cases. Serious criminal charges have been brought in cases where the offense has resulted in suicide or other tragic consequences.

Reporting cyberbullying to schools:

Most state schools are required to address cyberbullying in their anti-bullying policies and have serious sanctions. All staff will be trained on the school’s policies and rules, and how to enforce them. You can contact your teen’s teacher, a school counselor, principal, superintendent or the State Department of Education.

Resources

Digital Footprints

95% of teens in the US have access to a smartphone

If you Googled your teen, what would you find? 95% of teenagers in the US have smartphones, meaning that 95% of teenagers in the US are also owners of a digital footprint. For parents, the worries posed by smartphones may seem endless. Among the rise of mental health problems, cyberbullying and addictions, an often overlooked risk of your teen using a smartphone is a potentially damaging digital footprint.

Understanding digital footprints

Are your teenagers aware that every time they go online they leave a traceable trail behind them? While the reality is that most teens aren’t overly concerned with the dangers of building a digital legacy – they should be. And here’s why: a digital footprint could be reputation damaging, leading to negative repercussions later on in their lives, from job opportunities to college applications.

From ranting on Twitter and uploading drunken photos to Facebook, to sharing a seemingly ‘private’ nude over WhatsApp, your teens should consider their actions carefully. These digital actions can form a traceable footprint – a profile of what you do, where you’ve been, and who you are.

Why having a clean digital footprint is important:

  • College admissions

40% of admissions officers visit applicants’ social media pages. In 2017, Harvard University withdrew admission offers they had given to ten students. Admission officers had researched their digital footprints to find they were members of a Facebook group where they had posted hateful and obscene memes and engaged in offensive conversations.

  • Job opportunities

51% of employers found content on social media that caused them to pass on otherwise good candidates. Most common reasons to pass on candidates included provocative or inappropriate photos or information

  • Scholarships

Much like college applications, if you’re applying for a scholarship, academic or athletic, you should be aware that officers are likely to check your online activities

  • Privacy Issues

Issues like identity theft and cyberstalking are always a risk when any personal information is shared. Be careful which details you give away online – would a quick Facebook search reveal your email address, date of birth and workplace?

Tips for your teen to clean up their digital footprint:

  1. Perform a web search of your name Search your first and last name together and see what comes up. Make sure you do this on various search engines
  2. Assess your privacy settings Check your settings on all social media accounts. Can anybody access your personal details and photos, or is your profile set to private?
  3. Connect responsibly Don’t accept friend or follow requests from strangers
  4. Consider your online reputation Think before you post. Would you be comfortable with a future employer reading your online comments? Could they be considered threatening, harassing or discriminatory? Keep inappropriate comments to yourself and remember that you can delete old posts and untag yourself from questionable photos if necessary
  5. Create safe passwords Strong passwords are important to keep your online accounts secure. Never use the same password for multiple accounts, and make sure you change them regularly
  6. Keep your antivirus software updated Some malware is designed to mine your digital footprint, so make sure you have protection against external threats
  7. Review your apps Perform a maintenance review and ask yourself the following things: Do you use all of your apps? Do you know their privacy and information-sharing settings? Is the app necessary? If you don’t need an app, don’t keep it on your device

 

Social Networking Sites

75% of teens in the US have profiles on social networking sites and nearly 25% of them say their effects are negative

Social networking sites have become a global revolution, enabling millions of people around the world to connect, exchange photographs, share experiences and engage with content. Teenagers in America are among the heaviest users of social networks, with 75% of them having online profiles. While social networking can be a harmless source of entertainment, there are plenty of hidden dangers lurking beneath the surface. It’s vital for parents to stay informed, especially when a quarter of all teens say their effects are negative.

The most used social networking platforms among teenagers

Instagram

76% of teens use the photo and video sharing app. Instagram is most popularly used to upload pictures, follow friend’s experiences and to keep up with celebrities

Snapchat

75% of teens use Snapchat, a photo sharing app designed to send temporary ‘disappearing’ picture messages to selected contacts

Facebook

Although it could be argued Facebook has had its heyday, 66% of teens in the US still use the platform to keep in touch with friends and family, and to share photos and experiences

Twitter

Twitter is largely used to post short messages, ‘tweets’, which people can reply to and share. Out of Twitters approximate 3.3 million users, almost half of these are teenagers.

Risks associated with social networks

  • Bullying
  • Lack of face to face contact
  • Harm to relationships
  • Unrealistic views of other people lives
  • Distractions to school work
  • Addiction
  • Peer pressure
  • Mental health issues (depression, sleep disturbances, eating concerns)
  • Fraud and scams
  • Online relationships
  • Inappropriate content
  • Browser games and malware
  • Access for pedophiles and cyberstalkers
  • Damaging digital footprints

How has the rise of social media affected young people’s mental health?

The arrival of the smartphone, and the subsequent endemic use of social media has dramatically changed teens attitudes and behaviors. And it’s no coincidence that the rise of social media appears to correlate with a decline in national mental health among adolescents.

Screen activities are intrinsically linked to unhappiness, and the effect social media is having on teens if profound. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and loneliness are a peak levels. And while homicide rates among teens have declined in the last ten years, suicide rates have increased. For the first time, teens are more likely to kill themselves, than each other.

Psychologically, teens are more vulnerable than they have been in decades. So what’s the connection between social media and the psychological deterioration of a generation?

  • Teens feel left out

Statistically, teens now see their friends less and spend more time on social media. When they do see their friends, they post about it on social media. Those unable to unable, or simply uninvited, feel excluded, leading to feelings of loneliness

  • Posting anxiety

Those doing the posting, wait anxiously for affirmation in the forms of ‘likes’ and comments. This unhealthy dependency for validation leads to distress. Posting photos online inevitably also leads to popularity contests, encouraging unhealthy social competition for who receives the most ‘likes’

  • Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying among teens has reached endemic levels. Teens on social networking sites are radically more likely to be victims of cyberbullies. The link between cyberbullying and suicide is more prominent than ever before

  • Sleep deprivation

Teens who check social media every day are 19% more likely to be sleep deprived. Continuous scrolling mechanisms on the likes of Instagram and Facebook are purposefully designed to be addicted. Teens are staying up later and putting off sleep to engage with the never ending world of social media

The link between social media and mental health illustrated by The Economist

The hidden dangers: Scams, stalking and grooming

From dates of birth and hometowns, to frequently visited restaurants and school locations, social networking sites like Facebook explicitly encourage users to share as much personal information as possible. Public profiles facilitate the anonymity of ill-intentioned strangers, and put teenagers at greater risk to receiving unwanted contact from predators, cyberbullies, and cyberstalkers. While most ‘friends’ and connections don’t have malicious intentions, public profiles can be viewed by anyone, anywhere and anytime.

Cyberstalking is stalking and harassment via use of technology, and is largely done over the internet. Cyberstalkers can take advantage of geo-location settings, open profiles and the availability of unprotected personal information on social networking sites to humiliate, threaten, frighten, control and manipulate victims.

Aside from providing access to pedophiles and stalkers, open profiles also put teens at risk of being scammed by fraudsters via online messaging channels and apps like Snapchat. Common ways that cyber criminals target teenagers include messaging them malicious links containing malware, and attempting to trick them into handing over card or bank account details.

Young adults are more than six times likely to fall victim to scams on social media than people aged over 55.

If your teen receives messages containing the following, they may be being targeted:

  • Lucrative offers
  • Urgent requests for money
  • Hyperlinks that link to a different domain
  • Unexpected attachments that could contain viruses
  • Suspicious or unknown senders

Look out for these warning signs that your child is being groomed by a sexual predator online:

  • Wanting to spend more time than they usually do online
  • Acting secretive about online activity
  • Regularly deleting browsing history
  • Possessing devices that you haven’t given them
  • Using sexual language or expletives that you wouldn’t expect them to know
  • Changes in emotional behaviour

How to help your teen stay safe on social networking sites

  • Communicate the dangers with them, and encourage them to think about the implications of their online behaviours
  • Familiarise yourself with the social networks they use
  • Discourage them from posting their locations, and if apps they are using have a geolocation feature (like Snapchat’s Snapmap), encourage them to disable it
  • Make sure their privacy settings are updated to provide the most protection from the prying eyes of the public and potential stalkers
  • Teach them how to block users, report harassment, suspicious behaviour and inappropriate content
  • Encourage them to only accept friend or connect requests with people they know in real life
  • If you’re worried your teen is spending too much time on social media, see our suggestions for tips to help cut down technology use
  • Encourage your teens to spend less time on their phones and more time socialising in real life

Resources

Age-Inappropriate Content and Sexting

1 in 7 teenagers regularly send and receive sexts

The internet opens up the opportunity to explore a limitless online world without constraints that exist in ‘real’ life. This limitless world is full of unfiltered content – without guidance and given free reign, teenagers can either purposefully or accidentally find content that is age inappropriate, disturbing or explicit. Teenagers are curious, and access to internet facilitates easy exploration of just about anything.

What do we mean by age-inappropriate content?

When used correctly, the internet can be an incredible source of information, but it can just as easily lead teenagers into unchartered waters. Purposefully or not, there is plenty of age-inappropriate content available just one click away:

  • Pornographic material
  • Sites that encourage; violence, vandalism, crime, terrorism, racism, eating disorders, drug use, and self harm
  • Gambling sites
  • Unmoderated chat rooms and unwanted sexual solicitations

Sexting

Sexting is the sending or receiving of sexual photos or sexually suggestive messages. Although originating from the word ‘text’, sexting isn’t limited to cell phones – sexting happens over email, social media messaging services, Skype and in chat rooms. Research suggests that consensual teen sexting has become a normalised part of sexual development in the smartphone era, revealing that one in seven teens regularly send and receive sexts.

The dark side of sexting

While sexting can be harmless and come to no consequence, two dangers to consider are hacking and sextortion.

Last year a teenager from Georgia posed as a modelling agency and hacked into the computers of numerous girls to steal compromising images before uploading them to a pornography site. Unfortunately, the anonymity provided by the internet means that strangers can hide behind disguises to trick victims into gaining their trust before exploiting them.

Although technically not hacking, instances of nude photos circulating high schools are ever increasing. A naively sent photo to the wrong person can spread like wildfire through classrooms.

Sextortion also happens when nude photos end up in the wrong hands. It involves perpetrators blackmailing victims for money or sexual favours in return for not spreading the images in question.

Is your teen hiding content in a secret app?

Vault apps are becoming increasingly popular among teens to hide online behaviours from parents. These apps disguise themselves as normal apps, but when opened using secret codes, reveal a vault where users can store a private stash of photos, notes and conversations. Some vault apps even allow users to browse the internet via private browsers. Identifying these apps can be tricky as they are designed to go unnoticed, but are commonly known to look like music players and calculators.

Privacy should be respected, but not at the cost of danger. If you are concerned your teen may be engaging in conversations with strangers or hiding passed around nudes in vault apps, talk to them to make sure they understand the risks associated with such behavior. It’s important to keep a dialogue with you teen to make sure they know how to be responsible owners of smartphones. Parents with iPhones whose teens use the same Apple ID can take more proactive measures by enabling a feature called ‘Ask to Buy’. This gives parents the ability to screen apps before enabling a download.

What can parents do about sexting?

  • When it comes to sexting, the best thing parents can do is talk to their teens so they understand the risks involved. Make sure you have open, honest discussions about healthy relationships, trust and peer pressure. Encourage your teen to to act responsibly and safely online and to consider the consequences of sending sexts
  • If your teen has unwittingly received an inappropriate photo, have them delete it. Communicate that sharing photos by forwarding it to friends is more than just a violation of trust – if reported to the authorities, it could be considered distribution of child pornography, a serious crime with severe consequences
  • The safest way to avoid having a picture spread, is not to take it in the first place. Encourage your teen never to take and send images of themselves, especially if they are being put under any pressure to do so
  • It should go without saying, but emphasise that they should never send a revealing picture to a stranger. Consider reporting any requests from strangers online, and alert the authorities
  • If your teen is a victim of having a photo hacked or shared, avoid shaming them and have an open and supportive conversation with them. Aside from embarrassment, be aware of the psychological trauma your teen may experience. And be sure to discuss any legal consequences

Online Gaming

84% of teens have access to a game console

The average American household owns one dedicated gaming device, be it a console, a computer or smartphone. While online gaming can be can be a great source of both entertainment and socialising, it doesn’t come without risks. From online predators to monetary scams, it’s important for parents to be aware of the dangers faced by teens.

Online gaming opens players up to communicating and engaging with gamers across the world. Although an exciting prospect for gamers, the reality is that most players assume an anonymous identity. Large communities of anonymous strangers, paired with unfiltered and mostly unmoderated discussions can pose a whole series of dangers to vulnerable players.

The biggest security risks of online gaming

  • Sexual predators, cyberstalkers and cyberbullies

The anonymity of online gaming profiles facilitates open communication with strangers who may be seeking to exploit teenagers. Similarly, unrestricted channels of communication mean that cyberstalkers and cyberbullies have free reign to cause terror

  • Scammers and privacy problems

Scammers trick teens into sharing personal information such as passwords, addresses and online bank account details. Teens should also be aware of the personal information they leave on devices they are disposing of or passing on

  • Malware

Malware may be inadvertently downloaded from chat rooms or messages sent from other players. Viruses can be disguised as links to game ‘cheats’ or even in the form of applications. Teens should also be aware of the risks of downloading illegal, pirated copies of games

The dangers of gaming addictions

Addiction is just one of the risks associated with teens and gaming, but it can be the most serious. Because online gaming is considered to be more rewarding and psychologically stimulating than offline gaming, it’s more addictive. Online games rarely end, and limitless numbers of players available around the clock make it hard for some teens to regulate how much time they are spending gaming. Unhealthy levels of play can affect mood, weight, sleeping patterns, social development, relationships and academic performance.

Extreme addictions can see players connected for days on end completing marathon game sessions. In 2015, a man died in Shanghai after playing World of Warcraft for 19 consecutive hours. In the past six years, deaths connected to extreme gaming sessions have occurred in China, Taiwan, Russia and the UK.

Keeping teens safe

  • Teach your teens to protect themselves – make sure they understand the dangers of engaging with strangers online, and encourage them to keep personal details to themselves
  • Gaming sites have ways to report online abuse. If your teen is being targeted by online players, make sure they know how to report any harassment
  • If your teenager is younger, check the content of the games to ensure they are playing age-appropriate games
  • Ensure your anti-virus software is up to date on any devices games are played on and encourage your teen to consider carefully before they download anything sent to them online by strangers
  • Addictions can develop without warning – be vigilant and keep a close eye on how much time your teen is spending gaming, and make sure they take plenty of breaks. Keep an eye out for other warning signs including changes in weight, sleeping patterns, behaviours and attitudes. Try to encourage gaming as a social activity rather than an isolating experience.

Resources