Jason Hong | December 21, 2012

Fifty Shades of Greyware, or, How to Protect Your Kids in Today’s Online World

Ok we’ll admit it, we came up with the title of this blog post before figuring out what the content would be. But since the holidays are upon us and everyone is receiving brand new devices connected to the Internet, we felt the need to address a serious topic, namely, what you can do to help protect your kids in today’s online world.

In one of our previous scientific studies, we examined demographics about who was most likely to fall for simulated phishing scams. When I tell people about our work, most people expect that older people are more susceptible. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, we found that 18-25 year olds were actually the most vulnerable, and by a wide margin. We’re not sure if it’s because they are the Facebook generation and used to clicking on everything, or if they aren’t familiar with online scams, or if they are just at a stage of their lives where they don’t make good decisions (sort of similar to how your auto insurance rates drops in the United States after you turn 25).

There are also lots of headlines in the popular press about the risks to young children and teens online. There have been young adults who have been cyberbullied, embarrassed, and stalked online. In some cases, it has even led to individuals committing suicide.

Now, there are a lot of things that young adults need to know to use the Internet safely. I’ve pared things down to what I think are the eight most important things you can do to help keep your kids stay safe online. Many of these can be changed depending on the age and maturity of your children, but I hope it will give you some useful ideas.

1. Keep your home computers in public places
The first suggestion is to keep your home computers in a public place in your house. Doing this will make it easier to see what your kids are up to as well as make it easier to supervise their activities.

From a philosophical perspective, keeping your home computers in a public place is similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. Bentham’s core idea was that, by architecting things so that people might be observed at any time, people were more likely to have better behavior. Now, Bentham was talking about prisons, but I think the general idea holds here. By keeping computers in a public place where your kids are easily observable and can be observed at any time, they are more likely to be on their best behaviors.

2. Teach respect for others
Many of the kinds of online communication we have are impoverished relative to face-to-face interaction. It’s easy to miss a lot of basic social cues if all you have is a text message or email. The problem is exacerbated in large online forums, where people are only represented by a user name. This kind of anonymity, combined with lack of social cues, makes it all too easy to say mean or harmful things to others, even if that’s not who you are in real life. It also contributes to the lulz culture, where groups of people exhibit trolling behavior that ranges from the silly to outright cruel, often at the expense of some unwilling victim.

It’s easy to forget that there are really other people on the other side of the screen, and that actions can have serious consequences.

The saddest story I’ve seen regarding the lulz culture is that of Tyler Clementi, the young freshman at Rutgers whose privacy was invaded by his roommate, and who eventually committed suicide. The New Yorker has an in-depth article about the interactions between Clementi and his roommate. His roommate probably thought that it would be fun to use a webcam to surreptitiously see what Clementi was up to, and apparently had no conception that his actions might really hurt another human being.

It’s easy for kids to fall into the trap of prankish lulz behavior which is common online. Teaching them about human decency, respect, and etiquette will help them steer clear of this kind of anti-social behavior.

3. Don’t share passwords
In 2011, the Pew Internet and American Life Project reported that 30 percent of teenagers who were regularly online had shared a password with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend, usually for a social networking site. This study also found that girls were about twice as likely as boys to share their password.

One of the main reasons teens shared was because it was seen as a sign of trust. It could also help teens in situations too, for example checking one’s messages, or keeping a person off of Facebook until final exams were done. In many ways, password sharing is the 21st century equivalent of sharing one’s locker combination. Researcher danah boyd has also argued how parents have normalized the act of password sharing, since many parents ask their children for their passwords, just in case they are ever needed.

There are a risks to this kind of sharing, however, and it’s worth sitting down with your kids and talking with them about these risks.

The biggest and most obvious risk is that sharing the password to your social networking account gives the other person full control over it. If the relationship goes sour, it means the other person can spy on you, can post fake messages in your name, access your photos, change your privacy settings, and change who your friends are.

Overall, it really depends on the level of maturity and judgment your teen has. The best you can really do here is to teach them about the risks, and help guide them so that if they are asked to share their password, they can make a good decision.

4. Don’t install software if you weren’t expecting it
There is a lot of malware out on the web, which can damage your computer and your online accounts in many ways. Some of this malware seeks to use your computer to attack other computers. Some malware seeks to steal money from bank accounts (which could affect you, as the parent). Some malware seeks to steal your digital goods from online games, such as World of Warcraft. You need to teach your kids how to identify and avoid these kinds of malware attacks.

Now, there are a lot of tips on how to identify malware. We have a few tips on safe web browsing here. The two best pieces of advice I can offer is (a) watch out for software that you weren’t expecting to install, and (b) be careful of software that tries to rush you into making a decision.

For example, there are lots of fake anti-virus software out there, which will lie to you by saying that there are viruses on your computer and you should install this software right now to protect yourself. Here, both pieces of advice apply: you weren’t expecting to install any software, and it’s trying to rush you into “protecting” yourself.

As another example, some malware will tell you that there is a cool video of a recent party you were at, but you have to install some video software to view it. Again, both pieces of advice apply.

Teaching your kids about these kinds of risks will give them a leg up in protecting themselves from these kinds of scams.

5. Be careful in giving out personal details
There are a lot of people out there who may be interested in your children, in an unhealthy way. It might be scammers who are trying to get them to trick them into installing malware or sharing their account information. It might be an older individual interested in an adult relationship with your child. It might also be a fake profile used to deceive your child (see the sad story of Megan Meier, who ended up committing suicide due to cyberbullying from such a fake profile). It might also be people just interested in lulz, who might use personal information to harass your child (see the stories of what happened to Jessi Slaughter and Kiki Kannibal).

All of these cases are situations you should want your child want to avoid.

The best advice you can give your children here is to be extremely cautious about giving out personal details when online, especially to strangers that they have not met face to face. These details might include full name, street address, email address, and age.

There are a lot of people out there who do not have your children’s best interests in mind. Now, this does not mean that the entire Internet is unsafe. It’s just like how we deal with things in the real world. There are safe parts of any city, and not so safe parts. You need to teach your children how to differentiate between the two online, and how to apply good judgment to keep themselves safe.

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