The Protection Connection

This series is available as a PDF:

There are lots of ways to be safe, and you've probably heard most of them: Look both ways before you cross the street. Don't take candy from strangers. Don't run with scissors.

Versions of those warnings exist for your life online, too. There are things you can do to protect yourself, protect your information (and your family's), and your computer.

Protect Yourself

Use privacy settings to restrict who can see and post on your profile.

Many social networking sites, chat rooms, and blogs have privacy settings. Find out how to turn these settings on, and then do it. Limit your online friends to people you actually know.

Learn about location-based services.

Many phones have GPS technology, and there are applications that let you find out where your friends are — and let them to find you. Set your privacy settings so that only people you know personally can see your location. Think about keeping location-based services off, and turning them on only when needed. Ask yourself, "Does this app need to know where I am?"

Trust your gut if you feel threatened or uncomfortable because of something online.

Tell an adult you trust, and ask for help reporting your concerns to the police and others who can help.

Dilemma

You're online and an ad appears for a free game. It's a game you've been wanting to buy, but you hadn't saved up enough money yet. And here it is — for free. What do you do? Click download (because that would be so easy) and start playing? Check with your parents before you click? Skip it because it's probably some kind of scam anyway?

Protect Your Information

Some information should stay private.

Your Social Security number and family financial information — like your parents' bank account or credit card numbers — should stay in the family.

Keep your passwords private.

The longer your password, the harder it is to crack. Don't share your passwords with anybody, including your best friends, your boyfriend, or your girlfriend.

Don't reply to text, email, or pop-up messages that ask you to reply with personal information.

Even if the message looks like it's from a friend, family member or company you know, or threatens that something bad will happen if you don't reply. These messages may be fakes, sent to steal your information.

Protect Your Computer

Learn about security software and how your home computer is protected.

Be cautious about opening attachments or clicking on links.

They may contain viruses or spyware.

Sometimes free stuff — like games, ring tones or screen savers — can hide viruses or spyware.

Don't download free stuff unless you trust the source and can the file with security software.

Whether it's your laptop, tablet or phone, don't leave it in public — even for a minute.

If it goes missing, all the important information stored on it — like your messages and photos — may fall into the wrong hands.

Ask the Experts

Dear Expert,
I might be in trouble. I was playing on my dad's computer and downloaded some stuff. (It was free, or I wouldn't have.) Now he says his computer's really slow and goes places he doesn't want it to. Am I in trouble?

Are you in trouble? That's up to your dad. Is the computer in trouble? Probably. Some people claim to offer free stuff online — like videos, games, or ringtones — but when you download it, they secretly put harmful programs on your computer. It's called spyware.

Spyware could search your computer looking for your credit card numbers or your bank account information. Or, it might copy everything you type in — even personal stuff — and send it back to a crook. And who wants that? So when you're thinking about downloading something on to the computer, talk it over with your dad first. Think about whether it might be spyware in disguise.

Do You Download Apps?

If you do, you might be giving the app’s developers access to your personal information — maybe even info that’s not related to the purpose of the app. For example, say you download an app that lets you make a drawing out of a photo, but the company who made the app gets access to your entire contact list. It might share the information it collected with marketers or other companies.

You can try to check what information the app collects — if it tells you — and check out your own privacy settings. Also think about whether getting that app is really worth sharing the details of your life.

Some apps cost money. And many free apps let you buy stuff within them — with real money. Check with your parents to make sure they’re ok with you buying additional features, especially if they’re paying the bill.