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American teenagers spend approximately 53 hours a week interacting with media—from watching TV and playing games to surfing the web and interacting with mobile devices. In addition, those ages 12 to 17 send about 3,500 texts per month. With this type of external influence, Gary Phillips, senior director for cyber security at Symantec, was invited to speak about online safety to a group of parents and grandparents as part of the UCF Pegasus Health Seminar Series.

“People write things online that they would never tell their neighbors,” said Phillips. “And this has led to some startling statistics about teenagers’ activities.”

  • 88 percent of teens have witnessed online cruelty, with half of them jumping in to fuel the situation
  • 25 percent of teens have seen online confrontations become in-person confrontations
  • 8 percent of teens have seen online confrontations become physical altercations
  • 22 percent of teens have ended friendships due to online disputes
  • 6 percent of teens have received in-school punishment for their behavior online

Phillips said, “The most basic online rule to teach your children is, ‘If you wouldn’t say it to their face, don’t post it online or send via text messaging. But when peer pressure kicks in, that’s easier said than done.” So what’s a parent to do?

Below are Phillips’ top 10 recommendations parents should enforce to help protect their children (and themselves) online.

  1. Enable privacy and security settings – Most children can figure out how to enable settings faster than adults, so parents should focus on helping them understand who should and shouldn’t have access to their online information. Child predators know children generally take identities at face value, so by simply using a fake photo and establishing common interests, they can easily obtain information like your child’s school and favorite hangouts. The rule here is simple…If the person trying to “friend” them isn’t a friend in real life, don’t accept the invitation.
  2. Disable location services…sometimes – The question about whether or not to use location services on mobile devices is tricky. When enabled, this option communicates with multiple apps on the phone to alert those within your connections that you are nearby. If your child is “friended” with someone who should not have this information, it could be potentially dangerous. In emergency situations, however, this service can help rescue personnel locate your child. This one boils down to an individual decision.
  3. Watch and discuss your kids’ posts – It’s important for children to understand that all electronic devices are the property of their parents, with whom they must share all passwords so that communications can be monitored. If children are embarrassed to have their parents on their Facebook accounts, for example, agree to set up an anonymous account. But the most important part here is to discuss what your child posts because they often lack the perspective to understand that their online presence helps shape their future reputation.
  4. Warn kids about the permanence of information – Anything published online is permanent and far more replicable in cyberspace than on paper. So the ugly argument they may have had with a friend as a freshman could easily pop up when they’re applying for a summer job. And worse yet, many colleges search online when evaluating new applicants. Children also are fooled by so-called temporary posts like Snapchat, which appear for seconds before disappearing. Now there are apps to capture those posts so they can be reposted in different formats.
  5. Warn kids about risky communication – While it’s easy to understand the risks of social media and texting, many are unaware of the dangers associated with gaming personas…especially for children. When choosing a game for your child that involves voice commands and connects to the Internet in any way, only select those that allow them to automatically disguise their voices. This will make it harder for child predators to know when they’re gaming with a child. These types of activities should be monitored as closely as social media.
  6. Keep a clean machine – Many computers come with “freeware,” or software that’s preloaded. If you’re not going to use it, remove it immediately. Also remove old software that’s no longer of use. Many software products that are not updated frequently have vulnerabilities, which are open invitations for hackers. However, there are typically software updates and “patches” that can repair vulnerabilities.
  7. Don’t open emails, links or attachments from un-authenticated users – Hackers often go “phishing” to obtain personal information like usernames, passwords, credit card information, etc. Some even go “spear phishing,” which is an attempt to acquire information from a targeted person or organization. This comes in many forms, from email attachments to links they ask you to click on. If you’re considering clicking on a link, right click on it first to see the label. Immediate red flags are the last letters. For example, if you see “.cn” (China) or “.ru” (Russia), don’t click. Those two countries are the largest sites in the world for cybercrimes. If you’re ever in doubt about the authenticity of an email, throw it out.
  8. Use smart password strategies – As the first line of defense against information theft, passwords should be: long and complex (letters, digits and punctuation); free of common words and personally identifiable information (PII); memorable and not written down; changed occasionally; different for all accounts; and not shared. However, parents should know all passwords their children are using. A good practice is to change passwords every 90 days. An example of a good password is “YcagwYw-tRS’69,” which stands for “You can’t always get what you want – the Rolling Stones 1969.” While that is complex, it is memorable and difficult to crack. There are secure tools to help you remember passwords like Norton Identity Safe and LastPass.
  9. Run anti-malware software – There are a number of software products that can be loaded on your computers to protect them from malicious software, also known as malware. One of the more popular ones is Norton Security, but don’t be fooled that Apple products cannot receive viruses and worms. While they are not attacked so frequently as Windows-based machines, they definitely can become infected. Remember, hackers around the world are working overtime to find new ways to steal your personal information.
  10. Employ these strategies on ALL devices – If you have a device that you use to communicate with the outside world, it should be protected using the methods described above. Also beware when using these devices in public places without a encryption. Anything that travels over a public WiFi signal can be easily recorded.

“These strategies can certainly improve your child’s chances of being safe online. But with technology advancing at an exponential rate, no amount of protection software or safety mechanisms can replace consistent parental involvement. In fact, that’s the best safety advisory I can recommend,”, he said.

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