The Internet is a wonderful tool for social networking, entertainment and research. Most teens navigate the web like pros – no help from mom or dad needed. But they may need some guidance when it comes to keeping personal information private.
As many as one-third of teens have shared a password to an online account with a friend, boyfriend or girlfriend, according to a Pew Research Center study. But while a shared password may be a sign of friendship, it also opens the door for hurt feelings when a relationship sours.
Trust – and turmoil
Teens often share their personal information to demonstrate trust and intimacy, says Krystal Kuehn, a teen counselor and co-founder of New Day Counseling in Troy.
"Giving someone this special access is like sharing a secret," she says. And sometimes it's practical, too: A teen can check her friend's messages while the friend is in class, for example. As long as the relationship is stable, both sides can benefit.
But not all relationships last forever.
"Teen relationships can sometimes be unstable and change quickly" as the result of an offense, break up or misunderstanding, Kuehn says. Unlimited access to a disfavored friend's online accounts can enable hurtful, destructive actions: A girl sends cruel messages from a former friend's Facebook account; a jealous boyfriend snoops through his girlfriend's emails looking for signs of infidelity.
How breaches happen
Detective Rich Wistocki experiences the backlash of hostile teen relationships first-hand working as an Internet crimes investigator with a western Chicago suburban police department. He also hosts seminars to teach parents how to effectively monitor their kids' Internet use and keep their kids safe online.
Although much of the online sabotage he sees is a result of teens accidentally leaking their passwords rather than deliberately sharing them, he stresses the importance of always keeping passwords private.
However, if a password is leaked – by logging into Facebook from a friend's computer that automatically saves passwords or voluntarily allowing that friend access – it leaves a teen's online accounts vulnerable.
Wistocki suggests changing all passwords regularly, even if it's only by one letter. And if someone does access your teen's online account without authorization and takes malicious action, it's better to first report it to the police, instead of the account administrator, he says. Some organizations, like Facebook, will remove the offending material, making it difficult for the police to track.
The Internet and social media can add a layer of complication to already-rocky teen relationships. It's important to discuss with your teen what he can do to stay safe online. For more information about Internet safety, check out A Parent's Guide to Online Safety from the FBI.