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Criminal Children: Could Your Teenager Be a Hacker?

There are some signs parents can look for to assess whether their children are getting involved in dangerous activities online - here are some questions to consider...

It's a well-known fact that society's growing dependence on technology and the Internet over the last decade has led to a growth in illegal activities on the web. But did you know that the average age of a cybercriminal is now just 17 years? We're on the cusp of 'generation cyber' - those who have grown up surrounded by the Internet. Recent research we have conducted found that one in ten 16 to 19 year olds knows someone who has engaged in some form of illegal activity; if you think of an average A-Level class of 20 students - that's one or two teens in every class! So it could be your own teenager that's involved in illegal cyber-activity.

Some of this is simply down to youthful defiance for teenagers belonging to a truly digital generation. There is now a pressure on teens to set themselves apart from the crowd and raise their status with their peers - and for some, digital defiance is an avenue they may travel down. Teens are influenced to seek attention in this way due to the glamorisation of cybercrime. In fact, we recently carried out research with a sample of 1,500 16-19 year olds, which revealed that over a third of them would be impressed if a friend managed to replace the homepage of a major bank with a cartoon. Teens may seek this sort of respect from peers but many may be naïve about the implications and consequences of their actions.

Unfortunately it's frighteningly easy for teenagers to find their way into the dark corners of the Internet today. Young people exploring, experimenting or taking their first steps towards making some easy money online can end up in dubious online discussion groups in search of advice. Once there, they are vulnerable to exploitation, perhaps being drawn into a fraudulent activity by playing the role of a money mule, or being asked to create a malicious program.

There are some signs parents can look for to assess whether their children are getting involved in dangerous activities online - here are some questions to consider:

1. Are your children hesitant to talk in-depth about what they do online?

2. Do they get paid for their online activities?

3. Is your child spending an abnormal amount of time online, and has it affected their sleeping habits?

4. Have they become more socially isolated in the real world?

Of course, some of the signs above can be perceived as just normal teenage behaviours, so they shouldn't be taken in isolation as they don't necessarily mean a young person is at risk of getting involved in cybercrime. They are just indicators to help parents investigate these tendencies further. Ultimately it is vital for us, as parents, to be aware of the kind of risks and threats that are out there so we can protect this new generation of tech savvy teens. I've included some of my top tips below on how adults can prevent teens from unwittingly being drawn towards criminal activity.

Communicate and educate Talk to your children about the potential dangers. This should begin as soon as a child starts using Internet-connected devices. Let them know that the same stranger danger rules apply in the online world, just as we encourage them to develop this awareness in the real world. Make it clear that what's morally right and wrong applies just as much to the online world.

Take control Use parental control software to establish the framework for what's acceptable - how much time (and when) they can spend online, what content should be blocked, what types of activity should be blocked (chat rooms, forums, etc.). Parental control filters can normally be configured for different computer profiles, allowing you to customise the filters for different children.

Give guidance Explain what to do if they know someone who is involved in illegal activity. This is especially important as our research indicated that only 18 per cent of teens would tell a parent or teacher if they knew someone was involved in illegal online activities. Set clear ground-rules about what they can and can't do online and explain why you have put them in place.

Use the good side of the web Make use of the great advice available on the Internet - for example the Safer Internet Day site or the CEOP Thinkuknow site.

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