What You Need to Know Now: 5 Surprising Realities About Online Safety

“What You Need to Know Now” is a blogazine series that explores both the value and risk factors of today’s digital landscape. 

Executive Summary:  This article discusses cybersafety and addresses both malicious behaviors by cybercriminals (e.g. child identity theft, phishing, sexual misconduct) as well as personal safety-compromising behaviors (e.g. selecting inadequate privacy settings, disregarding app terms and conditions) affecting consumers, parents, and children.  It encourages cyber safety tips for children and adults.

In today’s digital world, children encountering malicious behavior or inappropriate material online may be all but inevitable, but falling prey to it doesn’t have to be.  The U.S. Department of Justice contends that educating children about online safety and security risks and inappropriate content is critical–they can’t avoid potential harms if they aren’t informed about what those potential harms are.  However, in most schools and families, discussion of these topics is quite minimal and only about 40% of parents regularly speak with their kids about online safety and security.

Children are now coming of age on the internet and it’s more crucial than ever that parents and educators teach them cyber safety tips.  This means adults and consumers must understand these topics themselves.  In addition to self-teaching, adults could benefit from their companies providing them with adult online safety and security information; and companies, in turn, could benefit by having employees that practice how to be safe online at home and at work/on work computers.

Below are five important considerations about online safety and security that young people, parents, and consumers at large should keep in mind.

1. Kids Are Often Targeted by Cybercriminals

More than one million children were victims of fraud. Two-thirds of child identity theft victims in 2017 were under the age of eight.  Twenty percent of underage children have been exposed to unwanted sexual images online and 11% to unwanted sexual solicitations, according to a 2018 Journal of Adolescent Health study.  Child identity theft scammers and other predators often target kids, who are likely more naive and trusting than adults.  

Cybercriminals engage through sites that are popular with kids like gaming apps and social media platforms and try to coerce them into sharing private information (e.g. location, email address, photos, parent’s credit card number).  They also send email/text phishing scams that attempt to trick recipients into clicking on a link that will infect their devices with malware, compromising their private data.  

Adults and parents can take steps to protect themselves and their families by installing anti-virus and filtering software on devices with internet and learning how to be safe online, recognize signs of criminal activity and inappropriate content online.

2. Connecting to Public Wi-Fi is a Huge Risk

For kids; for everyone.  Connecting to free public Wi-Fi can make you an easy target, revealing your banking data, passwords, and other confidential information to hackers, but 81% still use public Wi-Fi despite the online safety and security risks.  In fact, a third of them prefer to use it instead of their own data plan.  Some savvy cybercriminals even create an impersonator Wi-Fi name that is similar and easily confused with one provided by a local coffee shop or other venue you may frequent.

If you must log into public Wi-Fi, you are considerably safer when using a VPN (virtual private network) and anti-malware software will also help protect your device.  Avoid using public Wi-Fi to conduct sensitive activities, such as making an online purchase with a credit card or visiting your online banking account.

3. Non-Criminal Data Collection Poses an Online Safety and Security Threat, Too

Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s harmless.  Many companies use your data to personalize the ads you see and ostensibly improve the customer experience.  In some cases, data brokers can get access to your data and sell it for a profit, potentially putting your privacy at risk if the buyer has nefarious intentions.  

Many children and teenagers do not realize the risks of online commercial data collection and how it could compromise their privacy, and therefore feel a false sense of security.  A study in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media found that because tweens typically have a partial grasp of this concept, they tend to “overestimate their understanding of how to be safe online and invulnerability to engage in risky behaviors” online.  Another study indicated that high school students were also relatively unconcerned about how their personal data could be used for commercial purposes and put at risk.  

This false sense of security likely makes them more susceptible to risky online behaviors, such as divulging sensitive information online, selecting loose social media privacy settings, and granting access to apps without reading the terms.  A comprehensive lesson on data collection and how to be safe online could foster a healthy level of caution among young people.

4. Kids and Parents Play a Role in the Digital Footprint Problem 

Young adults of today are starting to experience firsthand the consequences that can come from the digital dossier they have amassed throughout their adolescence.  Pictures or comments they might have Tweeted or posted on Facebook in their childhood can later affect opportunities in college admissions, employment, health care, and financial services.  The abundance of readily-accessible information online allows data brokers and cybercriminals to piece together robust profiles on kids and consumers.  

Children of the digital age are particularly at risk of exploitation, as their online presence often starts at the very beginning of their lives–with the help of their parents.  The vast majority (66-98%) of parents on social media platforms post pictures of their children. Researchers found that many of these parent accounts can also be mined for the children’s names, birthdays, parents’ political affiliations, and even the family’s address.  And it’s not just parents–aunts, uncles, siblings, babysitters and other adults and consumers may be inadvertently putting their loved ones at risk of child identity theft.

Many businesses are also responsible for compromising the privacy of children (and adults) online by tracking and collecting their data, such as age, location, and browsing activity–and very often, it’s within their legal rights to do so. There are some regulations in place, however, to limit this type of data collection from young children.

Everyone–kids and adults–should be using strict privacy settings and be mindful of what information they choose to share online.  When adults model good social media and technology practices, children benefit, too.

5. COPPA Helps–But With Major Online Safety and Security Limitations

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) helps protect the privacy of children under 13 years old by regulating certain websites and online services directed toward children and requiring parental consent before collecting their child’s data.  While this provides some safeguarding, it’s certainly not foolproof, especially in the ever-changing landscape of global media and technology.  

Children can sometimes get around the law by lying about their age and parents might give consent without truly realizing how their child’s information may be used.  And by only applying to children under 13, COPPA does not encompass the constantly online teenage demo, leaving them “without protections in an essentially unregulated, commercial, digital media environment,” according to a study in the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

While the opportunities and benefits of the internet are ever-expanding, so, too, are online safety and security risks.  Lawmakers and advocates are being challenged to keep up.

Digital Wellness Network

The Digital Wellness Network is a public-private coalition of corporations, nonprofits and educators committed to mitigating the negative impact of unhealthy technology use by empowering students with the skills to make safe and informed decisions about technology.