Media portrayals of cybercrimes have often made them seem alluring. From the ‘90s cult film Hackers to Lisbeth Salander, the hacking heroine of The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo series, cybercrime appears to be glamorous and exciting in popular culture. And while most adults know these crimes are far from thrilling, impressionable teens may not be able to distinguish between Hollywood fun and harsh reality. And with the proliferation of technology and new youth-centric forms of online offenses surfacing, teens today may knowingly or unknowingly be participating in cybercrimes.
Beyond the glitz and glam of blockbuster films, there are plenty of headlines detailing the doings of real-life teen hackers. Unfortunately, these stories often do not bode well for the perpetrators. Teen hacker Jonathan James, at just 16, was famously the first teen sent to prison after he hacked into the computers of NASA’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency in 2000. And just last month, a 19-year-old Saudi who posted thousands of credit card numbers of Israeli citizens, an act considered cyberterrorism, was identified and will be prosecuted by the Israeli government.
And though these high-profile crimes may seem few and far between, many teenagers dabble in cybercrime, whether they know it or not. Breaching website’s security, cyberbullying, or illegally downloading software are crimes that can have serious consequences, and are only growing.
In a survey of 4,800 high school students at an American Psychological Association conference, 38% said they copied software without permission, 18% went into someone’s computer or website without permission, 16% took material, and 13% changed a computer system, file program, or website without permission.
Unfortunately, even more teens are victims of these types of crimes. A 2011 Associated Press/MTV poll found that 3 out of 10 teens reported being impersonated or monitored online. Of those who had been hacked, 66% said at some point they’ve changed their password in response to digital abuse, 46% have altered their email address, screen name, or phone number, and 25% have deleted a social networking profile.
The collateral damage of teens’ hacking exploits can have serious consequences. In addition to the financial cost (a 17-year-old in Albuquerque was fined $2,900 for illegally downloading the movie Hurt Locker in 2011), social reputations can be damaged. As the disturbing trend of sexting (the sharing of illicit images or conversations via mobile devices) gains popularity, those who disseminate and share such images can be prosecuted for possession of child pornography, meaning your teen could end up a registered sex offender for the rest of their lives. Even more disturbing, the publicized suicides of teen victims of cyberbullying reveal the highest cost of this type of online crime.
As a parent, preventing this behavior is paramount for both your teen and yourself.
Experts suggest engaging in open dialogue with teens about the appropriate use of the Internet, and discussing the very serious consequences of any illegal online activity.
More and more technologies are providing useful monitoring and protection tools for parents that block access to inappropriate websites, access to pornographic sites, and allow parents to easily monitor their teens’ social networking activities.
If your teen does appear to have an interest in hacking or computer security, funnel their energy into more positive activities. The government is already aware that today’s young hackers are tomorrow’s security experts, and has sponsored the Cyber Challenge initiative, featuring competitions for high school and college student hackers to find the best and brightest.