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MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay – Surfing the Internet used to be one of the favorite activities for Macarena, a 14-year-old from the city of Madero, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina, who requested her last name be withheld because of security concerns.
She would use the web to study, watch videos on YouTube, and use her Twitter and Facebook pages to keep in contact with her friends. In December 2011, however, a classmate attacked her on Twitter, publishing Macarena’s picture with this comment: “You’re pathetic; I hate you; you revolt me.”
This attack, also known as cyberharassment or cyberbullying, was discovered on Jan. 2 by her mother, Evangelina Zudaire, as she monitored her daughter’s online activities.
“When it comes to protecting our children from harassment over the Internet, [we can’t protect them] enough,” Zudaire said. “I knew about these types of virtual attacks, but I never thought we’d live it ourselves.”
Zudaire confronted the parents of the girl who launched the attack. The parents apologized and closed their daughter’s Twitter account.
About 36% of Latin American adolescents have been the victims of some type of attack over the Internet; yet only 11.5% of them seek help from their parents, according to a report published by the IT security company ESET Latin America.
The document was based on a survey of 400 Internet users between the ages of 14 and 29 representing 15 countries. It claimed 20.2% of adolescents reported receiving offensive material; 15.2% had their pictures or other private information stolen; and 14% had their identities compromised by phishing, a crime in which hackers send false emails or websites of banking institutions to get account holders to reveal their security codes.
Also, 3.4% experienced the type of cyberbullying that targeted Macarena.
André Goujon, an awareness and research specialist at ESET Latin America and one of the report’s authors, said most of these attacks are carried out over email (61.4%), followed by social networks such as Facebook and Twitter (57.7%).
The report showed that 81.9% of its respondents claimed to be aware of the kinds of attacks that can be launched using the Internet.
From that total, 98.7% knew about malware; 87.7% about identity theft; 78.2% about phishing; 65.1% about money being stolen; and 58.5% about cyberbullying.
Meantime, 81.9% don’t allow people they don’t know on their social networks, while 75.6% don’t publish private information such as telephone numbers and addresses.
“As a baseline, it’s good that young people are aware of these Internet threats,” Goujon said. “But it doesn’t mean they know in detail the many hazards out there or the right way of [dealing with] them.”
Of the new threats, 24.7% of those surveyed knew about grooming, the methods of persuasion employed by pedophiles to connect emotionally with minors to sexually abuse them. Also, 29.7% knew about sexting, the exchange of text messages with explicit pictures or videos.
“In the case of grooming, sexting and cyberbullying, among others, the danger is greater or smaller depending on the time that goes by before an adult discovers the problem and finds out the intentions of the person trying to manipulate the youngster,” Goujon added.
Safety begins at home
Communication between young people and their parents is essential for preventing attacks over the Internet, Goujon said.
But the study reveals that only 11.5% of those surveyed said they would seek help from their parents if they were victims of a cyberattack.
Goujon said this small number could reveal that many children feel their parents can’t help them or might punish them.
“It’s better to foster an open dialogue and non-coercive measures for protection to detect these kinds of scenarios early,” he said. “Adults need to become educated about these tools and their associated risks. In the case of grooming, for instance, results can be even worse if the parents are not aware of the situation and are unable to act in time.”
Martín Pecoy, a Uruguayan attorney who specializes in cybercrimes, said society lacks awareness about the dangers associated with the Internet.
“On the web, you can commit the same crimes as in real life,” he said.
Pecoy said Internet users should take the first step to protect themselves against cyberattacks.
“A cultural change is needed so that citizens understand what actually happens on the Internet so they can avoid [these attacks],” he added.
Schools need to play a leading role in educating children about the perils on the Internet, as 58.8% of those surveyed said they haven’t been educated about Internet-related dangers or how they can protect themselves, according to the ESET Latin America report.
“Schools are fundamental for the development of children,” Goujon said. “The younger they are when they become aware of the dangers lurking on the Internet, the better prepared they’ll be to respond if they face such a situation. We still have much to improve upon in this sense.”
Macarena’s mother asked the school administration to add cyberbullying awareness to the students’ computer classes, but school officials have yet to approve her request.
ESET’s security guidelines, depending on the age of their children
Online resources to access information and tools on cyber-crimes: