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The Potential Cybersecurity Threat for Teenagers During the Pandemic

By Adriana, a High School Student & Girl Security Participant
Essay reflects the views of the author. 

When I was growing up, anytime technology was mentioned, adults and teachers would give the speech about being safe online, specifically do not give out personal information or talk to strangers. I remember in middle school when social media platforms were becoming more popular, a few classmates used social media to post inappropriate comments about other students and teachers that the school was then made aware of.  As a result, the administration held a special session for us, telling us about the risks of using social media, how nothing is “private”, and how posts can have bad outcomes. Ironically, though, while we were being told that, we were also being introduced to different gaming, communication, and social platforms that made it easier for us to talk to and connect with strangers online. 

As a teenager, I have spent most of my life using technology and different online platforms in my free time. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my use of technology really increased, especially during the initial heavy quarantine period because I had nothing else to do; school was online, and I was going from seeing my friends every day to not seeing them at all. Now, most teenagers use social media to express themselves or to communicate with “friends,” whether they know them personally or not. In fact, 92% of teenagers use social media daily, with 24% of them using it all the time.1   Despite growing up with the basic knowledge of not giving out information to strangers, we still––, depending on the platform––, ignore the advice from adults in addition to warnings posted on websites about not sharing personal information.   

This increased use of social media and other platforms made me think about the general risks and privacy threats that may have occurred during the pandemic. Like most teenagers, I use multiple platforms to talk to my friends, find funny things, or just to pass time. We’re comfortable making “online friends” with strangers, posting pictures of ourselves, and sometimes unconsciously sharing where we live through posts and pictures.  Platforms like Discord, which help you join different communities, expose these risks. They allow us to easily talk to people we may not know or know anything about.  These strangers could be using fake accounts, lying about their age, or be an entirely different people person than who we think they are.  Doxing, which happens in the gaming community, is a perfect example of how information shared can be exploited.  If someone feels they’ve been wronged in a game, they could threaten to dox you which means they potentially will give out your identity or important personal information without consent.  They can also threaten to hack into your account or just take over your IP address.  However, some people may prefer Discord because it does allow users to have privacy settings that may lead to less oversharing of information.  

However, our increased need for connection, particularly during the pandemic, often undermines our concern regarding the risks. While potentially a mechanism to share personal information, channels like Discord help with the need for connection.  Discord is a good way to stay connected because it has so many different channels and brings you into different communities. Over time, it leads to people establishing “online friendships” with people who share our interests.  Discord has different channels including multiple different voice calls/chats or channels.  With voice calls and other forms of communication, if you already consider this person an online friend, you may forget that they are really are a stranger or could be lying about their identity. However, because of your “online friendship,” you may start feeling comfortable enough to start sharing more about yourself or even plan to meet up in person.  Even though we hear about how “online friendships” have taken serious turns such as leading to kidnappings and human trafficking, we regard the stranger as a friend now. The National Human Trafficking Hotline did a study of teenagers between the ages of 13-17.  In that study, they found that approximately 1,000 cases of potential sex trafficking victims of sex trafficking were recruited through platforms like Facebook and chat rooms.”2  In addition, 58 percent of the victims met their traffickers, and even though 42% of the victims never met the trafficker in person, they still became a victim of trafficking.3  Obviously, with the pandemic, meeting in person wasn’t possible, but with the country opening back up and the vaccine, this risk is likely going to become common again.  

Over the pandemic, the usage of TikTok increased from 4% to 29%,4 making it a popular site for people to connect daily with people and topics in an entertaining format.  However, TikTok’s ‘for you page’ can sometimes cause accidental information leaks to go viral because of the information shared in the leak.  When people notice that this happening, they often start focusing on the shared information in the comments. Sometimes the creator will even highlight this information themselves. However, there is a strong probability that even though it could possibly be a joke, one of those people seeing the information, like credit card information, could intentionally use it.  There are also posts where someone will ask viewers for phone numbers of people they “hate or dislike” jokingly so the creator will prank call them. TikTok, especially the comments, are comments are known for being sarcastic, meaning people in the comments will give out numbers but unless you call them you don’t know whether it’s real or fake.  This means that there may be information on the internet without permission or even knowledge that it’s there. 

The pandemic has been particularly difficult on teenagers and social media provided a new kind of normality for us.   Teenagers seem to have decided that the reward is greater than the risk. So, we as teenagers, particularly girls, just need to be smarter about protecting ourselves. I think this because, generally, girls tend to have more emotional connections to their friends than boys.  As a result, with online friendships, girls may be more vulnerable to trafficking and bullying than boys, and girls are disproportionately targeted by fake accounts and trolls more than boys.  Girls, therefore, need to be even more careful about who they make online friendships with and who they share their information with.  We think we’re being careful, but we can get caught up in the moment and put our guard down. Even though we don’t want to ignore the advice of “don’t talk to strangers,” over the past year or so we needed an escape and social media and gaming provided that.