Tracking teens’ digital footprints

Help for parents concerned about safety, privacy

The fast-evolving world of social media can be difficult for even the most technologically savvy adults to navigate.

Their children, however, are typically the first to embrace new social media platforms, putting them a step ahead of their parents’ attempts to monitor their online activity.

What parents don’t know can hurt their children. A June study of 1,004 teens from online security company McAfee found that 70 percent of teens reported hiding their online behavior from their parents in 2012, an increase from the 45 percent who gave a similar answer in a 2010 survey.

The teens surveyed admitted to minimizing browser windows when their parents entered the room, clearing browser history and deleting photos, videos and conversations. And what are they hiding? Some reported accessing of violent or pornographic material, hacking of e-mail and social networks, and participating in or witnessing cyberbullying. Other teens might be chatting with strangers who could be potential predators.

“This instant access to information and digital devices is having an impact on our teens that many of us as parents don’t realize,” said McAfee online security expert Robert Siciliano in a blog post on the company’s website. “Parents, you must stay in-the-know.”

The popularity of smart phones can make that effort even more difficult. Teens who don’t want their parents to trace their digital steps on a home computer can easily access the same material on their phones.

“The smart phones are the biggest issue now,” said Robert White, an agent investigating cybercrime through the Cincinnati division of the FBI. “Teens taking their phones in their room is the same as having a computer in the room.”

Simply being in the same room when teens use their computer or smart phone can make a significant difference in their behavior, the McAfee study stated, and White doesn’t allow his own children to keep computers or smart phones in their rooms.

“A lot of the people who target kids online want to know if they’re by themselves or alone,” White said. “I trust my kids, but if they know mom and dad are hovering around, they’re less likely to enter those chat rooms.”

Online monitoring systems can also be used to track teens’ behavior online. Texas mom Stephenie Ochoa created Eye Guardian, an app that monitors social media sites for objectionable material. Parents receive an alert through e-mail or texts when Eye Guardian spots such content, whether it be pictures or text that can indicate cyberbullying. When parents log into their Eye Guardian account, it will highlight the offensive material.

Other tips to help parents keep their kids safe online

-Become familiar with multiple social networks to stay aware of the ways your children could be communicating online.

-Have privacy settings in place on home computers to block objectionable content.

-Monitor your children’s smart phone use as closely as you would their computer use. Most of the content available on a computer is just as accessible on a phone.

-Obtain monitoring software or apps that block sites or log your children’s online activity.

-Read the user terms and policies for various social networking sites. Many list age restrictions for users and parents can contact the company to have their child’s page deleted if he or she is under the designated age.

-Stress the importance of keeping personal information private. “That 14-year-old girl they think they’re talking with could be a 55-year-old man,” White said.

-Explain to your children why monitoring devices, firewalls and other security methods are being used on their home computers and smart phones and inform them of the potential dangers lurking online.

-Don’t allow computers or smart phones in the teenager’s room. A parent’s presence is often enough to deter negative online behavior.

-Be careful posting personal images online. Some sites allow outsiders to mine data on an image that tells where the photo was taken, a scenario ripe for predators.

About the Author