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
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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.
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:
- 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
- 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
- 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 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.
- Find out how to report things on Facebook
- Report harassment or bullying on Instagram
- YouTube’s cyberbullying policy and their reporting tool
- Reporting abuse on Snapchat
- U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights
- U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division
- Consult your state’s laws
- Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
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
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:
- Perform a web search of your name. Search for your first and last name together and see what comes up. Make sure you do this on various search engines.
- 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?
- Connect responsibly. Don’t accept friend or follow requests from strangers.
- 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.
- 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.
- Protect against external threats. Keep your antivirus software updated and use a VPN if you’re unsure about the safety of your network. Some malware is designed to mine your digital footprint, so make sure you have the necessary protection.
- 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.
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 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
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 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.
Pew Research Center | McAfee | The University of Central Florida | Forbes | Common Sense Media | Cyberbullying Research Center | Child Development Institute | Internet Matters | Family Online Safety Institute | The Atlantic | FindLaw: Criminal Laws | StopBullying.gov | Washington Post | Huffington Post | Norton | Internet Safety 101 | Victoria State Government | Psychology Today