Are kids playing it safe online?

Despite the rap against teens' Net etiquette, attorney Eric J. Sinrod says it's time to re-examine the conventional wisdom.

Some people believe teenagers are reckless about the way they protect their private information on the Internet.

Others counter that teens are Net-savvy and are at least as smart as adults when it comes to safeguarding themselves in cyberspace. So, what is the truth?

Some answers are found in a recent study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which analyzed how teens manage their online identities and personal information. The report, titled "Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks" (view PDF of report) makes for quite interesting reading.

As it turns out, most teenagers are taking steps to protect themselves online from the most obvious areas of risk, according to the report. Many actively manage their personal information as they try to maintain important information confined to their network of trusted friends while at the same time creating content for their profiles and making new friends. The report indicates that most teens believe that some information should be shared while other information needs to be protected.

Not altogether surprisingly, the report also suggests that teens do face potential risks in cyberspace. Indeed, 32 percent of online teenagers and 43 percent of social-networking teens have been contacted online by complete strangers, and 17 percent of online teens and 31 percent of social-networking teens have "friends" on their social network profile who they have not met in person.

The following are statistics relating to how teens use social-networking sites and how they handle related privacy issues:

• Fifty-five percent of online teens have set up online profiles, while 66 percent of teens with profiles limit access to their profiles in some way. What's more, 46 percent of teens whose profiles can be accessed by anyone online provide at least some false information on their profiles to protect themselves.

Oftentimes, teenagers understand information technology better than their parents; thus, before parents can educate their teens, they must educate themselves.

• Ninety-one percent of social-networking teens use networks to stay in touch with people they already know, while 49 percent of social-networking teens use networks to make new friends.

• Thirty-two percent of online teens have been contacted by strangers, and 21 percent of the teens who have been contacted by strangers have engaged an online stranger to find out more information about that person. Also, 23 percent of teens who have been contacted by a stranger online report that they felt scared or uncomfortable as a result. (This translates into 7 percent of all online teens.)

Teens do post various items on their profiles, as follows:

• Eighty-two percent of teens who have created profiles have included their first names. Seventy-nine percent have included photos of themselves, and 66 percent have included photos of their friends. Sixty-one percent have included the name of their city or town, while 49 percent have included the name of their school.

• Forty percent have included their instant-message screen name. Forty percent have streamed audio to their profile, and 39 percent have linked to their blog.

• Twenty-nine percent have included their e-mail address, and 29 percent have included their last name.

• Twenty-nine percent have included videos, while 2 percent have included their cell phone numbers.

• Six percent of online teens and 11 percent of profiling teens have posted their first and last names on public profiles.

• Three percent of online teens and 5 percent of profiling teens have disclosed their full names, photos of themselves and the town where they live in public profiles.

The report demonstrates that not all teens rampantly are disclosing their personally identifiable information. However, many teenagers, across different categories, do disclose such private data. And while only a small percentage discloses their full names along with photos of themselves and the towns where they live, this small percentage still represents a large number of actual teenagers. Plus, the fact that practically one-third of online teenagers have been contacted by complete strangers is troubling.

Notwithstanding the independence that teenagers crave, parents must be vigilant when it comes to educating their teenagers as to how to protect themselves in cyberspace. Oftentimes, teenagers understand information technology better than their parents; thus, before parents can educate their teens, they must educate themselves.

For some teenagers, education may not enough. For them, parents should do their best to observe how their teens behave online. One simple solution is to keep the family computer in a public area, such as the living room, so that parents can keep an eye on how their teens surf the Web. Some parents as a matter of technology actually monitor the online movements of their teenagers. Other parents (and certainly their teenagers) would view this as an invasion of teens' privacy.

The world has grown a lot smaller as a result of the Internet. This, of course, brings many advantages. But a downside is that teenagers can be brought into contact with strangers with the click of a mouse. Better safe than sorry.

 

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