Digital safety and security tips for college students and teens

Diverse teenage students using digital smart mobile phones on college campus - Group of friends watching cellphones sharing content on social media platform.

Being a teen, surviving high school, and embarking on your college journey are already hard enough as is. In today’s highly connected world, you also have to navigate online safety and cybersecurity issues.

Cybersecurity is the digital equivalent of protecting a house from crooks, except there are many more entry points to protect. According to Cisco, a company that specializes in networking, cloud, and security solutions, cybersecurity is “the practice of protecting systems, networks, and programs from digital attacks.”

Cyber threats can include malware, ransomware, phishing, and social engineering. Any of them may result in identity theft. You can lose your data and your money, and a cybercriminal could even impersonate you on social media, damaging your reputation. Worse yet, a malicious cybercriminal could lure you into a dangerous situation offline, putting your physical safety at risk.

Teens and college students are particularly vulnerable to cyberattacks. In this guide, you will learn how to stay safe and secure in an evolving digital landscape of cybersecurity threats. But first, let’s explore some surprising stats about teen internet use that bring the issue of cybersecurity into sharper focus.

College student and teen internet use

It comes as no surprise that digitally literate teens and college students are online, the surprising part is just how often they are. A 2019 survey by Common Sense Media about media use by tweens and teens found that:

84 percent of teens have their own smartphones.

For college students, the stats take on a deeper dimension. One study on smartphone addiction and sleep from Frontiers in Psychiatry polled 1,043 college students from King’s College London. Of those, almost 40 percent reported being addicted to their smartphones.

If you are one of the many who are spending more and more time online, you might be wondering what it really means to be “in danger.” You may not be hanging on the edge, but all of us online are walking on a cliff. It certainly does not hurt to learn the facts about cybersecurity.

Myths vs. facts: cybersecurity in a digital world

The internet is global, there is no one in charge, and there are many cybersecurity myths people perpetuate without knowing it. Here are some of the most common cybersecurity misconceptions, along with a little myth-busting to give you some perspective.

Myth: A variety of difficult, personalized, complex passwords will keep you safe online.

Fact: Hackers use software that runs billions of password combinations and their methods for figuring out your passwords are very sophisticated.

Myth: If you use antivirus software, you are safe.

Fact: A hacking collective called Fxmsp breached three of the biggest antivirus providers in 2019.

Myth: It’s not that big of a deal to have your data stolen if you just use social media, surf the web, or email.

Fact: Your social media data is worth thousands of dollars to marketers. It is worth just as much, if not more, to hackers. And surfing the web attaches cookies to your browser, making it easy for hackers to see where you have been. The more of your data hackers get, the easier it is for them to take over your computer and hold it hostage until you pay them money (ransomware).

Myth: Phishing scams are easy to spot.

Fact: Phishing attacks are the most common type of cybersecurity breach and college students are particularly vulnerable. In 2021, the IRS had to warn students about an impersonation email scam in which hackers tried to get access to their taxpayer info. In 2020, the FTC also saw a COVID-19 economic stimulus check phishing scam that targeted college students.

Myth: You can tell when your phone or computer has been hacked.

Fact: When hackers install malware on your device, it can be very hard to detect. Once hackers have access to your device, they can use it as a “zombie” device to coordinate attacks on other systems. They may even be able to access your webcam.

These are just some of the harmful cybersecurity myths floating around. It is best to take your internet safety and cybersecurity seriously.

How to stay safer online

Keeping yourself safer online can help protect your information, as well as create peace of mind while you are using the internet, either for school or personal use. There are many ways that you can keep your information safer on your personal devices, as well as practice good internet safety. You can use these practices separately or combine them for a more holistic approach to online safety.

Secure your digital signature

Universities will often cut administration costs by digitizing academic documents and forms — on the upside, this is more convenient and accessible for students and faculty when the document requires a signature. Education forms that may require your e-signature include:

Your e-signature is just as important, and as legally binding, as your wet signature. This is why it is important to keep it secure. You can keep your e-signature secure by:

These practices can help teens and young adults create good digital security habits that can serve them throughout their higher education and well into their professional careers.

Protect your mobile device

Smartphones have become a huge part of our daily lives, and survey data from Statista show the average person spending around five to six hours on their phone per day. According to Peterson’s, colleges and universities are also encouraging mobile device use by releasing apps that allow students to access their financial and education records, and even take tests or check in to class right from their phone.

There are many benefits to a mobile-first approach, but there are also several risks. Your phone can be vulnerable to hacks based on the security measures you do or don’t implement, the data on the devices, and the apps you have installed. This is why it is important to take steps to secure your mobile device before accessing sensitive information. You can do this by:

Keep your email accounts safe

Your email account can hold important documents during both your education and professional career. This is why it’s important to keep your personal and school emails protected. You can enhance security by enabling two-factor authentication, and installing encryption software, as we have mentioned before.

Another way you can enhance security for your email account is by limiting the number of devices you access it on. Accessing an account on a public computer can leave your account vulnerable. Only access your email accounts on personal devices such as your phone and personal laptop.

Know how to combat the dangers of social media

Social media can be a great outlet for creativity, social fulfillment, and general day-to-day entertainment. Most teens and young adults today have not known a world without some form of social media. However, it’s important to be cautious when using social media, and putting your face and location online can pose particular risks for young people. Three ways to help avoid these risks:

When it comes to social media, it is just as important to look out for your mental wellbeing as it is your data security. Research aggregated by the Newport Academy shows how depression and social media use in teens are closely linked. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) suggests how you can create a healthier relationship with social media by limiting your daily usage, or only following accounts from people you know.

Be wary of phishing

Phishing is the fraudulent practice of sending messages pretending to be someone or something that you are not. E-mail phishing is a great example of this — someone might send you an email pretending to be your boss, trying to get your email log-in credentials. If they succeed, they now have access to all kinds of information. Phishing can happen on public servers with messaging capabilities, including social media, dating apps, and emails. Learning how to spot phishing can help you keep your information safe online. Here are some common phishing scams:

When in doubt, do not take action within the emails. If you received an email from a company about something wrong with your account, for example, login to your account in a different browser using a link to the site you find through Google search. If you do not have an account, simply delete that email. If you receive an email from someone that appears to be spoofing the sender, send a different follow-up email to that person, using the email address for them that you have in your address book, or that you find in a public directory. And never send personal information in an email to anyone you do not know, no matter how many prizes are offered. If you did really win something, go online to search for the company and the contest.

Types of cyberattacks

There are many types of cyberattacks. As CRN magazine has documented, you can even be the victim of cybercrime without your device being compromised, in the form of security issues from companies you work with. For potential attacks on your personal devices and data, these are some of the most common:

Awareness of how cyberattacks work is the first step in being able to intercept or disable them. By using cybersecurity tools and best practices, you can reduce the access points that cybercriminals have to your devices and data.

Do not put up with cyberbullying

Just because it is online and virtual does not mean it is not serious. Cyberbullying is no joke. According to Do Something, 37 percent of young people from ages 12 to 17 have experienced a form of cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is any use of the internet to bully, threaten, or demean another person. If you are experiencing cyberbullying, you should immediately block and report the account. If this does not stop the problem, then reach out to the customer service line of the platform to pursue further action.

The worst thing that you can do is ignore cyberbullying. This will not stop the problem from recurring and can increase feelings of depression and isolation. Stopbullying.gov has a list of resources for children, teens, and adults who need help to stop or deal with cyberbullying.

Cybersecurity resources

For each point below you will find articles and reviews discussing cybersecurity practices, currently available software, and trends within the cybersecurity community.