The Secret Online Lives of Teens, a survey conducted by McAfee, reveals that tweens and teens are relatively clueless about online privacy. The study sheds light on this generation’s tendency to use the Internet in ways that translate to danger in the real world.

The fundamental problem is their belief that privacy is unimportant or irrelevant, which stems from their lack of understanding of what privacy actually entails. Most alarming is the extent to which they are willing to share certain types of information online, information which is often visible to complete strangers. In doing so, they make themselves easy targets for data mining by adults whose reasons are not always well intended.

While most adults are not predators or pedophiles, there are certainly many of them out there who prey upon the young and naïve. Statistics show there are as many as half a million registered sex offenders in the U.S. alone. And many more simply haven’t been caught yet.

There always has, is, and will be a predatory element out there. Generally, most people don’t want to think about that or even admit that it’s true. Instead of acknowledging the risks, most people completely discount this reality, telling themselves, “It can’t happen to me or my kids.”

The Last Watchdog sums up the study as follows:

“McAfee commissioned Harris Interactive to query 955 American teens, including 593 aged 13-15 and 362 aged 16-17. Survey responses were weighted for age, gender, ethnicity and other variables. The McAfee/Harris poll found:

  • 69 percent of teens divulged their physical location
  • 28 percent chatted with strangers

Of those teens who chatted with strangers, defined as people whom they did not know in the offline world:

  • 43 percent shared their first name
  • 24 percent shared their email address
  • 18 percent post photos of themselves
  • 12 percent post their cell phone number

What’s more, girls make themselves targets more often than boys: 32% of the girl respondents indicated they chat with strangers online vs. 24% of boy respondents.”

It’s not just tweens who don’t understand that they’re living in a fishbowl. Young adults and parents are equally clueless. Channel 4 News in Jacksonville exposed a Florida mother who took a picture of her 11-month-old son with his mouth over a pot bong and posted it on Facebook. The mom’s behavior was obviously reckless, but what she and many don’t understand is that anything digital is repeatable.

Many now blame social networks for the erosion of whatever privacy we once had. Social networking sites aren’t inherently bad, but they are self serving entities, promoting transparency that ultimately leads to marketing and advertising dollars. For them it’s all about profit, and it’s to their advantage to gather as much information about you as possible, which allows them to fine-tune their offerings to advertisers.

My belief that people need to “live consciously,” making informed decisions about and ultimately taking responsibility for themselves, makes it difficult for me to blame anyone but users themselves for their lack of security. But I know the reality is that people are easily led, easily bamboozled, and they need to be told what to do and what not to do.

Studies like this bring much needed attention to these issues, hopefully raising awareness for teens and their parents. As a parent, I am as laser focused on the media my children consume, in all its forms, as I am on any food they eat. No responsible parent would allow their child to eat spoiled food, because they understand why it’s bad, but those same parents may allow their children to roam freely online without supervision. This is mainly because the parents don’t understand the risks.

When a quarter to a third of teens are revealing all their information to total strangers, it should give society pause. Understand that as this trend continues, more and more kids will be blindsided when they are solicited by adults who, with an additional twenty or more years of live experience, know how to con a kid.

Robert Siciliano, personal security and identity theft expert adviser to Just Ask Gemalto, discusses hackers hacking social media on Fox Boston. (Disclosures)

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