Are Teens Tech-Savvy But Security-Poor?

If you know any teenagers then you probably think they spend too much of their time with their gadgets rather than with friends or family – and yes, I am aware that statement makes me sound like a grumpy old man! Even teens who use technology less than others, perhaps to the relief of their parents, can demonstrate similar behavioural and communication patterns as those who are always on their smartphones due to the way that technology permeates the culture of their peer group.

I believe we can split the population into three groups. Our teenagers are ‘Digital Natives’, people for whom having instant access to information and communication tools is a given. They will never know a world without the internet. Then there are ‘Digital Migrants’ like myself. We have grown up with the technology – indeed, have helped to shape it – but we still have knowledge of the ‘old ways’. We might use Google Maps whilst driving, but if the technology fails we can still navigate by opening the road atlas we keep stuffed down the back of the driver’s seat. And then there are the ‘Digital Tourists’, people who visit this wonderful digital world but, perhaps, don’t understand or trust it. These are the folks who still write cheques instead of using online banking, who refuse to use the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

The gap between these groups can be startling. We accept that the average teen is going to be more tech-savvy than someone in their eighties, but a 2014 Ofcom survey showed that an average six-year-old child understands more about digital technology than a 45-year-old adult. As that child reaches their teenage years, imagine the discrepancy between them and the now 55-year-old adult.

There is, however, another gap that seems to be developing. We see that our teens are pretty clued-up on the latest gadgets, apps and social media, and therefore assume they must also be wise to the ways of cyber security. Surely they are security conscious and know all about how to protect their online identities and data? I’m not so sure that’s the case.

In June 2017 I commissioned a One Poll survey of 500 teenagers, aged from 13 to 17, to find out how good UK teens actually are at consciously backing up their data. Surprisingly, nearly half (49.8%) never actively back up their computers, do so less than once a year, or don’t know whether their data is backed up at all.

Considering that cyber attacks, such as the recent WannaCry and NotPetya incidents, are regularly in the news and that computer-based crime now accounts for more than 50 per cent of all crime in the UK, it is concerning that so many teenagers are simply not prepared for the loss or hijack of their personal data. In fact, the younger generation’s propensity to be more adventurous with their online data makes them more vulnerable to cyber exploitation than other age groups. The survey results therefore highlight that much more parental and educational guidance is needed to keep teens cyber safe and protect their digital assets effectively.

Herein lies the crux of the problem, however. Because parents and teachers see the advanced knowledge and tech capabilities of many teenagers, it is perhaps understandable that they assume that teenagers are much more data secure than they are in reality. Parents are fooled by the idea that their children know more about computers and the internet – and, therefore, about data security – than they themselves do; when this is evidently not the case.

Teenagers might have all the latest apps and a better understanding of the online world in general than many adults, but the fact remains that they are not good at protecting their data, whether by failing to back up their important files and photos or through over-sharing of personal information. With the increase in cyber attacks, the ever-present possibility of equipment failure and the risk of loss or theft of mobile devices it is surprising that Generation Z are not a lot more savvy of the risks of data loss. I suspect that many of them simply assume that backing up their data is something that happens automatically, with no input from themselves.

The survey results show that teenagers do get marginally better at backing up their files with age, as 57% of 13-year-olds are most at risk of data loss, compared with 47% of 17-year-olds. These statistics suggest that as teens get older, the more likely they are to take their data seriously and ensure they have backups – this may be due to an awareness of the value of their data (no-one wants to lose their coursework as exams start to loom) or perhaps is the result of experiencing some sort of significant data loss in the past. We know from previous research that school or university coursework was, along with photos, the most significant and highest reported forms of data to be lost from desktop computers or laptops for our Digital Natives.

Data security is probably one of the last things a parent wants to put on their nag list when trying to deal with a potentially petulant teen, but ensuring they back up their data regularly and are aware of the risks of cyber crime will undoubtedly save potential cost and a lot of undue stress and heartache further down the line if things should go wrong.

So it’s worth making sure your teenagers are aware of the risks to their data. Just don’t expect them to thank you for it…

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