Wednesday, June 30, 2010

McAfee "Secret Life of Teens" Survey Report, Part 3 - Risky Online Behavior


Part 3 of a 5-Part Series

Photo Credit Flickr Common
One of the first things parents teach their children as soon as they are able to understand is not to talk to strangers. As children become older, they would consider any strange adult trying to talk to them out of the blue “creepy” in person. They would get a “strange feeling in their gut” if some random person on the street started asking them personal questions like their age, their home address, their email, or their phone number. Teens would most certainly find it very odd to have a stranger on the street ask them for a picture of themselves. A teen would rightfully consider engaging in any of this type of communication situation “in person” weirdly inappropriate at best and alarmingly dangerous at worst.


Some of the most shocking elements of the McAfee “Secret Life of Teens” online behavior survey results confirmed teens talk to strangers and give up personal information quite easily often without thinking about it or feeling weird about it in their online behavior. Despite scary news headlines and concerned warnings from parents, teens are releasing more personal information than they should to random people they encounter on the Internet.

The risky online behavior of teens is highlighted in the McAfee survey result statistics:

* 69% of 13-17 year olds have updated their status on social networking sites to include their physical location.

* 28% of teens chat with people they don’t know in the offline world.

* 43% shared their first name.

* 24% shared their email address.

* 18% shared a personal photo of themselves.

* 12% shared their cell phone number.

* Girls are more likely than boys to chat with people online that they don’t know in the offline world, (32% versus 24%), and 13-15 year old girls (16%) are more likely than boys the same age (7%) to have given a description of what they look like.

Dave Marcus, Director of Research and Communication for McAfee Labs, provides the big picture view in his response to my question What threats are teens still facing online? - “I think it goes beyond the concept of threats that they are facing online, what they share online is the real problem. They are revealing photos and saying things that they may not realize can be posted elsewhere. Teens tend to be more trusting online, and may not have a concept of the scams/malware they could be harvesting just by clicking on an unknown link.”

Tracy Mooney, McAfee’s Chief Cyber Security Mom summarizes the point, “Kids know not to talk to strangers – it’s one of the first lessons you teach them. But online, there’s a sense of trust and anonymity, so kids let their guard down. Kids would never hand out their name and address to a stranger in the real world, so it’s alarming to see how many kids do that very thing online.”

The risky behavior detail in the study uncovers there are several red flags for parents, “Despite the fact that there is roughly the same level of online danger today as in 2008, most (95%) kids who participated in the survey are confident in their ability to stay safe online, yet our report shows that they still engage in risky behaviors.”

* Although teens are heavy Internet users, it’s still surprising that 27% say that they have accidentally infected their home computer with a virus or other malware, and 14% say that they shared their passwords with friends.

* Perhaps because girls tend to communicate more, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as chatting with people they don’t know in the offline world (25% girls overall and 43% among 16- to 17-year-olds). Girls also report higher frequencies of being harassed and bullied online than boys.

* Almost a third (29%) of teens have downloaded a program without their parents’ knowledge and 16- to 17-year-old boys (45%) are most likely to download programs without parental knowledge, or those of x-rated content.

* While more than half (52%) of young people say they know someone who has experienced cyberbullying, only 29% say they have experienced it themselves.

* However, one in four kids (25%) report that they wouldn’t know what to do if they were bullied or harassed online.

The study affirms cyberbullying remains a risky online behavior problem, especially for girls. McAfee notes, “Cyberbullying has made media headlines several times this year, with tales of teens and tweens harassing each other online– with tragic consequences. One-in-three teens knows someone who has had mean or hurtful information posted about them online – like sending anonymous emails, spreading rumors online, forwarding private information without someone’s permission or purposely posting mean or hurtful information about someone online.” The conclusions drawn in the study around cyberbullying are not necessarily encouraging:

* Although cyberbullying statistics are flat (14% of teens admitted to engaging in cyberbullying in 2010, versus 15% in 2008), this data shows that despite current efforts, engagement in cyberbullying isn’t getting any better which may indicate that education efforts need to be increased or evaluated in order to decrease this behavior.

* Furthermore, incidents, such as cyberpranking (sending anonymous emails to someone at school) and spreading rumors online tend to increase as teens get older. This could mean that the large number of tweens that are online now could face more cyberbullying in coming years.

* The growing popularity of social networking could also open the door to further incidents of cyberbullying because kids have more ways to contact and harass each other and can find out more personal information about one another posted on social networking profiles and Twitter feeds.

* It is clear from the research that cyberbullying is not something that will go away anytime soon without increased education and prevention.

I asked McAfee’s Chief Cyber Security Mom Tracy Mooney for her opinion on teens and warnings:

BKH: Why do teens ignore online safety warnings?
TM: It’s not that teens ignore online safety warnings, rather that they feel more comfortable sharing personal information online. Kids seem to value the openness of sharing information online, whereas adults tend to be more cautious.

BKH: Do shock videos like the recent very graphic British made “car accident while texting video” have any impact on teens?
TM: I think kids think that they are the one kid in America who CAN text and drive. I try to set an example by handing my phone to my kids when I am driving. They can answer it for me if it is an emergency or check a text if it is important.

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