When teen angst and cyber attackers meet
Are the young people of the next generation ready to protect themselves in their hyper-connected world?
It’s a dating site for teens as young as 13 years old, and it claims it “was created for the safety of online teen dating and socializing.”
On OurTeenNetwork, young people—at least, people who claim to be young—often bare their souls in the hope of catching the eyes and the heart of another member on the site.
Sixteen-year-old Mackenzie—not her real name—in Oregon says, “I seriously hate love way more than life. No offense, but just seeing couples together always make me sad.”
Bailey, age 16 and in Arizona, says, “I’m bi and I want to date someone for years, not months. I just want someone who won’t take me for granted and that will actually care for me and not hit or cheat on me.”
Trentyn in North Carolina says his life at 15 is very difficult. “My dad died last year on my birthday, my mom has bad memory and freaks out a lot, my stepdad and my mom fight a lot and normally my stepdad starts the arguments… I just wish I could find true love so I would like living again.”
If Mackenzie, Bailey and Trentyn really are the teens in the pictures they post, they may be vulnerable, and not just emotionally. The dating site’s owner also left a major security hole in his system, allowing anyone to hack into conversations between members, pose as other teens on the site, and send their own messages as that teen, reported Motherboard.
This is “a perfect example of what happens when technology connects people and privacy and security are an ‘afterthought,’” said Marsali Hancock, president and CEO of Internet safety site iKeepSafe.
And for teens—connected more than any other generation—the growing number of cyber attacks may mean a growing risk. Are young people keeping up with the task of learning to fend of malicious hackers and cyber intruders who want their personal info, their money, and in some cases, even more?
While some teens are hacking governments or preparing for careers in the exploding world of cyber research and defense, some members of “Generation Z” spend little—or no—time thinking about cybersecurity.
“I guess it really never crossed my mind,” 17-year-old Jennifer told Archer News. “You’re on social media, you really don’t even think about it.”
The Minnesota teen says her favorite site is Twitter. It’s easier than Facebook, she says. Plus, “there are no parents on Twitter.”
Jennifer’s parents may not be on Twitter, but malicious hackers are, taking over the accounts of teen favorites like Katy Perry. They tweeted homophobic slurs under her name and leaked an allegedly unreleased Perry song last month, according to USA Today.
“I’m sure that they could do absolutely anything,” Jennifer said. “I mean, like, it’s kind of one of those things you hear about. You’re, like, no. There’s so many people on social media. That’s never going to happen to me.”
Thirteen-year-old Jessica from Oklahoma knows bad guys could take over her social media accounts and do damage.
“Like tell people they had sex with u or post pictures on your profile,” she wrote in a conversation over the texting app WhatsApp.
She limits what she puts on her Facebook page, with guidance from her grandparents.
“Well, on WhatsApp, it says the messages are secured with end-to-end encryption. On Facebook and Pinterest, it is really a 50/50 shot, so you just have to be safe,” she said. “Facebook can be safe if you use it right, like don’t post any pictures of yourself that you are going to regret.”
Nineteen-year-old Jordan in Texas says he thinks about security, especially when he is on a new site or app.
“If it is something I shall be using for a while or if I do not fully trust it, I make sure to use only trash email accounts, varied passwords and general caution when using the site or app, unless I can avoid it altogether,” Jordan said. “I tend to avoid going to a website that I do not trust or am not familiar with.”
He might visit YouTube, Reddit, Instagram, fishing supply sites and a game app during a typical day.
“The websites I use are usually large companies with decent security, but being online allows someone to be open to any number of risks,” Jordan said. “Using as much security and cautions as possible is the best way to keep yourself safe.”
Survey after survey reveals how Millenials feel about and fare with cybersecurity—reports say people born between the early 1980’s and 2000 are generally more confident with tech, and also more careless. But information on the next generation—born around 2000 or later—is harder to come by.
Today’s teens spend about nine hours a day using media, like videos, video games and social media, and tweens—ages eight to twelve—spend about six, according to a report by the non-profit group Common Sense last fall.
A third of children between 4th and 8th grade engage in risky behavior online, a 2016 report said, and their parents are unaware that some kids are on their phones or computers until after midnight on a school night, doing anything but homework.
Many parents are not monitoring what their children do online, leaving them free to use the Internet “inappropriately or in dangerous ways,” said the report from the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, ISC2 and Booz Allen Hamilton.
“Almost three in four kids have been given a cell phone, about two in four have access to a tablet and close to half have a computer in their bedroom,” the report added. “As a result, almost all children say they can and do use the Internet without parents watching them. This is often done on their phone when not at home, at a friend’s house or even when they are at home.”
Some of those risky moves from kids in this age group include going to dating sites or sites with sexual content, and talking with strangers online. Fifteen percent of the 4th through 8th graders said they have used FaceTime or a webcam to talk to a stranger.
“Parents need to be made more aware that inappropriate Internet use is widespread and is engaged in by all types of children,” the report said. “Their own children may not be immune to the dangers.”
The dangers include exposing personal information as well, like phone numbers or home addresses, and buying something online with a credit card without their parents’ permission.
Another survey of older teens and young adults found risky security behavior as well. A Visa Europe report last year said Z kids, in this case, ages 16 to 24, are more likely to share their debit or credit card info with someone than older generations. The same holds true for their smartphone password and Internet banking passwords.
“Gen Zs often do not take the time to determine the reliability of information,” wrote former teacher turned education consultant Adam Renfro on Getting Smarter. “Because Gen Z is from the digital generation, many teachers incorrectly assume that ALL are ‘digital citizens’ and are aware of online hazards, managing personal information online, guarding intellectual property, tech savvy, and so on,” he added.
Like washing your hands
The new generation—and generations after—may need a new kind of education.
“Just like we teach children to wash their hands and drink clean water we also need to teach them how to protect their devices and personal information,” Hancock told Archer News. “Students need to hear about how to protect their devices and their own data from an early age.”
Her group is helping with a new initiative called Schooled in Security that will provide security awareness training for high school students. The program is starting with 15 school districts in California, with plans to expand. The organizers say they will be calling for security education for students in all high schools across the country.
“Not only will they become more cyber-secure citizens, they’ll enter the workforce with a great head start on security awareness,” the site says.
Built in haste
The security flaw at OurTeenNetwork is fixed now, according to Motherboard.
The site administrator told Motherboard that there was a security gap because he “built the site in haste.”
“I bought the site a little time ago and it was a wreck,” he said in the article. “Nobody was using it. Slowly, I’ve been making it much better, and now it was around 10,000 users.”
For teens, this could be an important lesson.
“Until people recognize the value of their own personal information and how to always suspect that the person on the other side of digital communication may or may not be the actually sender you think it is,” said Hancock. “The sender may not even be a person.”
iKeepSafe promotes what it calls the six pillars required to thrive in a digital culture—balance, ethics, privacy, reputation, relationships and online security.
“Even if people treat each other with respect and kindness, but still have poor cyber security skills, they are a risk to everyone with whom they communicate digitally,” Hancock said. “Keeping devices and the network clean are as important as keeping water clean.”
What do you tell your kids?
We asked people who work in cybersecurity every day for their recommendations—what do they tell their kids?
“My advice to teens is to ‘pause before acting,’” said Stacy Bresler with Archer Security Group, a father of three.
“Unfortunately, teens are often click happy. They whip through e-mails, texts, and web pages at breakneck speeds,” Bresler said. “This can quickly add all kinds of malware to their computer if they push the wrong buttons! Slow down and think.”
“Don’t surf all over the place or click on random links—try to only visit sites you are familiar with,” added Leonard Chamberlin with Archer Security Group, also a father. “Think before providing personal info or credit card info and make sure the site is using HTTPS before doing so.”
“Don’t open e-mails from unfamiliar people and certainly don’t open attachments or click on links in those e-mails,” he added. “Try not to use the same password for all of your online accounts. Limit what info you post about yourself on FB, Twitter, etc.”
“That’s about all I try to get them to remember,” Chamberlin said. “My mileage varies with just these few guidelines!”
If you are a parent of a Generation Z child, you may need to use words your parents never used with you, and talk about concepts that may not have existed when you were born.
You will want to help your children password protect all of their mobile devices and accounts, using strong passwords, and using them only once.
You will want to warn them about malware that will show up on many sites while they are searching for their favorite celebrities online and could put their personal information at risk.
You will want to alert them to research an app before they download it to see what it wants from your phone and whether it has bad reviews, a possible sign of trickery, among many other cybersecurity lessons that will help you and your family.
“Start early and keep talking,” says the site Safe and Secure Online. “Many kids are given their first tablet or Internet-connected device before they can fully comprehend the power in their hands. Your parenting will need to change with the technology so research the latest trends and stay on top.”