What Advice Would You Give Your Teenage Self About Staying Safe Online?

By Marian Merritt, Symantec Director of Cyber Education and Online Safety Programs
Feb 13, 2014 1:35 PM ET

We Asked University Students! What Advice Would You Give Your Teenage Self Abou…

Originally a European initiative, this year the recognition of February 11, 2014 as Safer Internet Day (SID) is a global campaign. The theme we are celebrating is, “Let’s create a better internet together.”

This theme got me thinking about the many ways having the Internet helps us. We research, we share our experiences, we find maps and directions, we plan trips – all of this is great. Yet, the technology network that connects us as individuals enables us to experience a world vastly different from what many of us grew up with.  

Consider the lives of college students or recent graduates. They have grown up with the Internet and have been the unwilling research subjects for an industry in its infancy. Their youthful mistakes can offer valuable insights for today’s youth (and even adults) and help us all to be better at this online “thing.”

I asked a few college students to share their advice to their 6th grade selves; what they wished they’d known back then that would have helped them to create a better, safer, more mindful online experience.

Social Media

  • David, Lehigh University: “Don't friend random people on Facebook. If you don't have mutual friends, you probably don't know them."
  • KristenUniversity of Missouri: “Do not friend just anyone on Facebook. Make sure you actually know that person. Don't post any pictures you wouldn't want your parents to see. Be aware that companies look at Facebook and will Google you when you are interviewing for a position.”
  • Hanna, University of Arizona: “Watch what photos you put online. Once they are online (and out of your control), they are there forever.”
  • David: “Anyone can take a screenshot of anything. (Even if you think you’ve shared with just one person, there’s a chance the message or photo will be shared further.)”
  • Hanna: “Watch what you post about: topics, the language you use, what you are saying and about whom. What I've learned in school is that some employers will add you on Facebook or Twitter and then, they can see what you post. If you are using those sites to whine and complain and share all kinds of information, it can reflect poorly on you. The company may come to the conclusion that you can't keep a secret or have no filter.”
  • Nate, Johns Hopkins University: “I would say be careful about what you say on Facebook and other social media, not because when you are applying to places that they will look, but because at some point you will probably be social with your co-workers and naturally just become friends with them on social media. (They will be able to review your timeline, friends’ lists and see your history, including posts and comments.)”
  • Justin, George Washington University: “Do not get into crazy arguments with people. Almost 100% of the time, there is no way to get out of them without saying something you'd regret as a person, but that you'd also regret as it is written in ink forever online. Also, don't use social media as a screen between you and another person to say something that you wouldn't say to the person’s face. Friendships are ruined and reputations overturned because of that.”

Mobile Applications

  • Barbara, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “I would say be careful with the information you give out. So many mobile applications link to Facebook to share authentication and other features that passwords and any content on Facebook could be insecure. I guess just be aware when you link 50 things to your Facebook that one of them is going to be insecure and anything could get out.”
  • Nate: “Also for apps specifically, I would stress that you should not only pay attention to how much of your data you are sharing but how much of your friends’ data you are sharing. For example, if you are joining some cool new messaging app and it asks for all your friends’ contact information, so it can ask them to join, you will want to think twice before allowing that permission.”
  • Nate: “Another thing I'm aware of is that anyone I spend a lot of time with (roommates, good friends, etc) willeventually learn the PIN on my phone, so what I do is install a secondary password application and use that to protect apps that I wouldn't want anyone getting into (such as email and Facebook).”

Communications (Texting, Email, etc.)

  • Jamie, University of Miami: “Don’t use apps that let you create anonymous messages, or send things to people without them knowing who it is. That always leads to trouble and people might be able to guess that it's you.”
  • Jamie: “Always check your texts before sending them. I once sent a text to my mom complaining about her, when the text was meant for a friend. Luckily, she thought it was funny but it could have been bad.”
  • Barbara: “Also, always check your email recipients! Don't send emails to the wrong people because you mistyped a name or used an old address. And the “reply all” option in email can send the email to the wrong people or annoy people with “spam”.”
  • Trevor, Harvard University:  “No Internet arguments or debates (no good can come from them). Check who you're texting with before you press “send." Triple check who you're sending emails to. Also, get into the habit of checking the subject line of your e-mails before you send them. If you're writing, even in a private e-mail, anything that, if read by anyone else would leave you mortified, consider mentioning it in privacy next time you get a chance. If you let it exist in writing in *their* inbox, it’s outside of your control.”

E-Commerce Advice

  • Kristen: “Make sure a site is secure before providing any credit card/ personal info. “
  • Elissa, Spelman College: “Being able to order clothes, shoes, handbags, food, and everything else imaginable and have it delivered right to your door might seem like it’s the best thing to ever happen to you. It’s not, especially when you are a college student on a budget. It’s so easy to lose track of how much money you’re actually spending when you shop online. Try to give yourself a reasonable amount to spend, and once you reach that amount, do not go over. Not even a little. Remember, spending limits are your friend, not your enemy!”

General Internet Advice

  • Kristen: “Everything is visible on the Internet and will not just go away. People can easily copy your photos or repost your comments. You should do a web search on your name every once in a while, especially before interviews.”
  • Barbara: “When choosing a password, you want to use a combination of capitol and lower case letters, numbers and characters. The more complex, the harder it is to hack into. And you should use different passwords for everything. Of course, remembering so many complex passwords may be harder so you want to store them down somewhere safe.”

In looking over the advice of these intelligent and thoughtful young people, you can see a common thread – you own your own online experience. It doesn’t have to be something you engage in with fear. You can enjoy online shopping, email, texting, mobile apps – you just need to do so mindfully. Pay attention to the motivation of your vendor partners. Understand how mobile apps make money from your information and usage. Consider your words and posts for a moment before you click send. Balance your need or desire to use any program with the tradeoffs you will make with your valuable information. The Internet is a powerful tool to connect the globe and empower us all. Use your good sense, consider those around you, be cautious and aware. And let’s create a better Internet together!


Marian Merritt is Symantec's Director of Cyber Education and Online Safety Programs.