As a generation who grew up on smartphones and tablets, you and your classmates will always be a step ahead of your parents when you jump online—no matter how much we hate to admit it. One thing we old folks do know, however, is that the more comfortable you become with something, the more likely you are to let your guard down.
While your digital devices may have been set up with parental controls in the past, now that you’re in high school and becoming more independent, your personal safety falls into your hands. Every time you research a topic for a homework assignment, communicate with your friends on social media, or pull out your smartphone in a store, your privacy and identity are at risk. And once they’re compromised, there’s no quick fix.
To know if you check all the boxes for online safety, take the quick self-assessment below. And if there are some areas where you could use a little work, we offer tips to help you bump up your security.
- You keep your identity a secret from strangers. One of the best things about the Web is the ability to communicate with people around the globe. Unfortunately, the more information you put out into the world, the more intel a potential predator has to find you. That cool sophomore you’re talking to a few states away may actually be a creep your parents’ age, and any mention of your town, sports team, or favorite coffee shop are clues they can piece together to identify you. In addition, be sure to turn off location services on your apps that may reveal where you are throughout the day.
- You’re Wi-Fi savvy. Public Wi-Fi is a lifesaver when you have limited data, but it isn’t secure—the second you sync up, your fellow patrons may be able to see what you’re working on, even from across the room. Plus, your favorite stores, restaurants, and venues can track your movements online if your smartphone automatically connects to their Wi-Fi. If you have to rely on Wi-Fi, limit your use to homework and research and avoid checking your social media or shopping online until you’re back on your data plan or you return home.
- You keep your usernames and passwords to yourself. Yes, your parents or caregivers may request access to your accounts for safety reasons, but no one else should have your username and password. Even someone you consider a friend can hack into your accounts to steal your identity and post private information. Also, avoid online quizzes or surveys that seem innocent. Many provide scam artists with hints to security questions that allow them to sneak into your accounts and reset your passwords.
- You can identify the warning signs. While antivirus and malware protection software can protect your devices, they can’t always catch every threat. Download software and files only from reputable companies, and never open attachments from senders you don’t know (or ones from friends that appear suspicious). If you notice that your device is running slow or your browser is acting weird, tell a parent immediately to determine if it needs to be taken to a technology professional for a scan and repair. In addition, if you receive inappropriate or sexually graphic content, talk to a parent or teacher you trust. Illegal activities that exploit underage minors should be reported to your local police department, as well as to CyberTipline.
- You’re able to put your smartphone down. According to researchers, 45 percent of adolescents say they’re online “almost constantly,” and a study in JAMA Psychiatry found that teens who use social media more than three hours a day “may be at heighted risk of mental health problems.”
While social media is playing a key role in keeping teens connected to each other during the pandemic, issues associated with different platforms—including cyberbullying, unhealthy body images, and the fear of missing out—can lead to increased depression and anxiety, as well as a decline in empathy for others. To protect your emotional health, be sure to limit your time online so that you can talk with friends face-to-face. Put your smartphone in airplane mode in the evenings so that you’re not distracted by incoming messages and notifications, and focus on activities that don’t require you to log in.
As important as it is to protect your online safety, it is equally important to protect your reputation online-especially if you’re gearing up to apply to college. Don’t share any inappropriate posts, messages, or photos publicly (or even privately!) that you wouldn’t want potential admissions counselors to see. Once something personal hits the Web, it can live there forever.
For more information on personal safety for youths, visit the U.S. Department of Justice website for a list of resources.