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The Secret Life Of Teens Online

New McAfee report shows teenagers think they're safe online, but their actions demonstrate otherwise

The majority of this Internet-savvy generation of teenagers is confident in their safety online, but more than one-fourth have inadvertently infected their home computers with malware, and 14 percent share passwords with friends.

A new report by McAfee reveals how teens' perception of safe online behavior doesn't exactly match the risky ways they operate on the Net: Ninety-five percent say they are confident they can remain safe online, but in the meantime nearly one-third of them have downloaded a program without their parents' knowledge, and one-fourth of teenage girls say they chat online with strangers.

McAfee's report is based on an online survey conducted in May by Harris Interactive of 1,357 kids between the ages of 10 and 17 in the U.S.

Among the unsettling findings, 69 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds have included their physical locations on the social networking status updates; 28 percent chat with people they don't know; 43 percent revealed their first name; 24 percent, their email address; 18 percent, a photo of themselves; and 12 percent, their cell phone numbers. More than 15 percent of 13- to 15-year-old girls shared a physical description of themselves.

"This report is a wake-up call to the real dangers our teens face when they make themselves vulnerable online. As a mom, it worries me that kids aren't practicing safe 'street smarts' when they're online," said Tracy Mooney, McAfee's chief cyber security mom and a mother of three, in a statement. "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."

More than 90 percent say their parents trust them online, but at the same time 56 percent say their parents don't know all of what they are doing online, and 26 percent say their parents don't have time to monitor it. Around 31 percent say that if their parents were watching them online, they'd change their behaviors.

They cover their tracks, too: More than one-third say they "often" or "always" hide their online actions, and 29 percent say they minimize their browser when a parent is within range of their computer. Twenty percent hide and delete text messages, and 21 percent clear their browser history.

More than 45 percent say they download music or videos from a free service, and 87 percent go online outside of their homes -- 54 percent from a friend or relative's house. Nearly half say they don't know what to do if they were to be bullied online, and one in three know someone who has been cyberbullied.

And more than 15 percent of boys between the ages of 16 and 17 say they have downloaded X-rated content, according to the McAfee report (PDF).

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Discuss" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message.

Kelly Jackson Higgins is the Executive Editor of Dark Reading. She is an award-winning veteran technology and business journalist with more than two decades of experience in reporting and editing for various publications, including Network Computing, Secure Enterprise ... View Full Bio

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