Steve DeWarns, a police officer in the San Francisco area, says teens share photos they shouldn't, give out passwords and fail to lock down their online accounts.
Many parents and teenagers know the basics of Internet safety: Don’t give out age, address and other personal information to websites. Set strict privacy settings. Don’t post or send revealing photos. Don’t befriend a stranger online — and certainly don’t go alone to meet him.
But teens don’t always follow these guidelines, according to police who work to protect young people from Internet crime. And the elements of cybersafety are constantly changing.
Steve DeWarns, a police officer in the San Francisco area, says the most common mistake teens make is oversharing. “They don’t lock down their accounts, they pass around photos they shouldn’t, and they give out their passwords to friends,” he says.
All this sharing can land them in trouble, said Stefanie Thomas, part of the Internet Crimes Against Children task force with the Seattle Police Department.
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She recently saw a case where a middle-school girl sent a revealing photo to a boy she liked. He told her if she didn’t send him more photos, he would post the one she had sent him to Facebook and forward it to all his friends.
“This is actually extortion, and he was charged with a serious crime,” said Thomas. She noted that these crimes are becoming more common.
Boyfriends and girlfriends using the Internet to hurt each other after a breakup is another common consequence of oversharing. They may publicly post inappropriate photos meant to be private or use the other’s passwords to pose as that person online, insulting and cursing at other people, Thomas said.
Some teens document themselves breaking the law by posting pictures of themselves drinking or taking drugs, said Thomas. These actions can have long-standing consequences.
“A cyber-background check is the latest in employment practices,” she said, and some companies are asking applicants to log in to their Facebook accounts and show them what is posted there.
“I may have engaged in the typical high-school behavior,” Thomas tells her teen audiences, “but my mistakes aren’t searchable on Google.”
Families also need to be aware of newer technologies, such as smartphones that can tag the location of photos using GPS. Thomas advises parents and teens to turn the tagging off.
For kids who do like to show where they go and who they’re with, she advises to at least post the photo from the mall, movies or party after the event and not during it.
Girls who act provocatively on a live webcam are surprised to find out those sessions aren’t always private, according to Thomas. “They can be recorded and sent to others,” she said.
Thomas has even seen sexy bathing-suit photos taken from public Facebook pages and put on pornography sites. “Copying and pasting is not tracked on the Web,” she said, “Once you’ve posted a photo, you’ve lost control of it.”
Teens, especially boys, playing online games can encounter bullies, bad language and the occasional predator who might offer free tips or online gifts in an attempt to get to know them. Gamers who encounter these behaviors should report them to the game company and block the person doing it.
They should also choose screen names or gamer tags that don’t give away their age or other personal information.
Parents should let tweens and teens know they should come to a parent when they see negative behavior online, said Thomas.
Parents can install software like SocialShield, which flags potentially harmful language and actions appearing in the child’s social media and email interactions and notifies parents. DeWarns, the San Francisco police officer, is a consultant to the company.
A page on the Microsoft website offers checklists and guidelines for parents and teachers to set ground rules kids as they explore the Internet.
It can feel burdensome for teens to turn off GPS picture tagging, keep an eye on privacy settings, and edit their own behavior on the Internet, said DeWarns, “but they need to know it’s the price of being on the Web today.”
Julie Weed is a freelance writer in Seattle. Watch for more coverage on how teens and tweens use technology.