Younger Generations Throw Caution to the Wind When it Comes to Internet Security
You might expect that younger, digital-native users would get that more than anyone. After all, they grew up in a world where “stranger danger” has moved online, cyberbullying is an epidemic, and teenage girls are taught to be terrified of their private photos ending up as “revenge porn” (while the boys who share these images are increasingly expelled or even arrested).
These serious threats and their consequences should make us all think a lot more carefully about the dangers lurking online… but too often, they don’t. As our recent survey showed, young people, in particular, take huge risks with their security when they go online.
The good news is that these risks are easily avoidable – if you know how. Plus, more and more people, including those from the younger generations, are keen to learn about the best ways to address these threats and keep themselves safe.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the biggest lessons to learn from our recent internet security survey, highlighting the issues it raised and explaining what all of us can do to make ourselves safer online.
The Internet Security Survey
We conducted a detailed survey of 1,000 participants, asking them about their attitudes and behaviors when it comes to internet security.
The survey focused on seven areas of security: awareness of online threats, VPNs, antivirus software, unfamiliar emails, Facebook friend requests, use of public WiFi, and using credit cards online. We also asked respondents about their interest in learning more to better protect themselves online.
We grouped responses by gender and by generation to get a sense of whether these factors made a difference in how people behave. What we found was that gender doesn’t really change the results – people from both sexes behave in pretty much the same way. When it comes to age, though, the difference was much, much bigger.
The survey showed that younger generations are far more comfortable with risk and far less cautious when it comes to adopting proper internet security measures.
Let’s dive in and look at the results – and what they mean for safety online.
Avoiding Online Threats
Q: Do you feel you are aware of online threats and how to avoid them?
Let’s start with how aware people really are about the dangers they face online.
We were relieved to find that pretty much everyone knew that the internet could be a dangerous place. Across all age groups, including the under-22-year-old category, around half of the people who took the survey said that they were highly aware of the risks, while the other half reported hearing “something” about them.
Interestingly, this was one of the few questions where there was a slight gender split, with around 10% more men saying that they were “very” aware of potential dangers. Even so, the women we asked confirmed that these issues are on their radar – so that’s a relief!
Things start to get a bit more worrying when you look at what people do with that information, though. Again, across all age groups, half of people said that they only worry about these potential risks “sometimes”. A little more than one in 10 said it rarely crosses their mind – and when it came to the youngest internet users, 3% said they never thought about it at all.
Of course, there’s a big difference between worrying about something and taking meaningful actions to address it. As we’ll see in a moment, this is where the generational split starts to come in.
Using a VPN
Q: Do you use a VPN while you are online?
The answers we got to this question opened up some interesting revelations.
Younger people were much more likely to be aware of VPNs in the first place, with just a fifth of under-22s and slightly fewer (18%) of 23-42 year olds admitting that they don’t know what these are. The younger the internet user, though, the less likely they are to translate this knowledge into action.
While 40% of people in the 23-42 year old bracket said that they do indeed use VPNs, more than half of younger people confirmed that they know what they are but choose not to use them.
When we compared this to the answers from users aged 55 and older, we found that only a minority (17%) of these older internet users had set up a VPN – but that’s partly because almost half of them were unsure what VPNs are in the first place.
This is worrying. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) are one of the best ways to protect your privacy online, especially when you’re doing things like internet banking or using WiFi in a public place. You’d expect that once people were aware of them they’d be much more likely to take advantage of the technology – as so many people aged 23-54 told us they do. That’s not what happens with younger users, though.
Want to learn more about what different VPNs do and which is best for you? Check out our detailed reviews of the top 10 VPNs for 2019 here! >>
Using Antivirus Software
Q: Do you use an antivirus while you are online?
Antivirus software keeps you protected from all kinds of harmful malware, including viruses, trojans, and worms as well as spyware, adware and even the dreaded ransomware – malicious programs that lock up your precious files and threaten to destroy them unless you pay a ransom to release them.
If you don’t have a good way to detect and remove these nasties, you will, at best, end up with a computer clogged with ad pop-ups that run painfully slow. At worst, your files could be deleted, corrupted or stolen, your banking details cloned, and your device rendered unusable.
This makes decent antivirus software an absolute essential for internet security. So how did our survey responses reflect that?
Once again, age and responsibility went hand in hand. With each age bracket, the likelihood of having antivirus protection installed went up sharply.
Four-fifths of people aged 43-54 and 85% of over-55s told us that they use antivirus. This reflects the fact that the overwhelming majority of people know what this is in the first place – very few respondents from any age bracket said they were unsure.
Things went south as the respondents got younger, though. 44% of people under 22 told us that they either didn’t use antivirus or didn’t know what it was.
Not sure which Antivirus software is best for you? Compare the best on the market with our detailed reviews of the top antivirus for 2019 here >>
Q: Do you open emails from unknown senders?
Despite having grown up on the internet, younger users were far more likely to be trusting of strangers, too.
Asked whether they would open emails from unknown senders, a fifth of under-22s confirmed that their curiosity would get the better of them, whereas 19 in 20 wary seniors would hit delete.
Opening emails and downloading attachments from nefarious sources is one of the main ways that malware burrows its way into your system. The most sophisticated stuff comes embedded in something as inoffensive-looking as a jpeg or PDF file, which is one reason email providers typically block images from displaying by default.
Simply opening a suspicious email is less dangerous than it used to be, as most providers have figured out ways to prevent auto-downloading of viruses and malicious programs. That said, there’s always the risk that someone will figure out how to get around this, and it’s still incredibly easy to click on a link or an attachment accidentally.
The very fact that you opened the email can also trigger data to be sent to potential attackers, highlighting you as a target for more sophisticated attempts. There are plenty of (perfectly legal) tools on the market for companies to track who opens an email and what they do next, after all. Giving information to these people can turn into an annoyance; giving it to hackers can turn into a nightmare.
What’s more is that you will, of course, be far more vulnerable to attacks if you don’t have any antivirus software installed. This means that younger internet users, who are more likely to open a dodgy email and less likely to have security set up to limit the fallout, experience twice the risks.
Facebook Friend Requests
Q: Do you accept friend requests on Facebook from people you don’t know?
Getting strangers to accept friend requests through Facebook is a common tactic used by scammers seeking to gather enough personal information for identity theft – or, indeed, physical theft, if you open up too much about things like what you’ve bought, where you live, and where you’ll be at what time (including through holiday snaps).
It’s also a way for people to send you unfiltered messages containing dangerous links, to target your friends (who may assume they can trust this person, because you ‘know’ them), or to build familiarity with you in the long term, with a view to tricking you into something much more serious. From extortion and blackmail to tricking you into lending money only to disappear, these false friends are known to wreak all kinds of misery behind a cloak of anonymity.
All of which, of course, makes it very important that you never accept a Facebook friend request from someone you don’t know.
… Which makes it all the more worrying that one in five under-22s are willing to do just that.
Again, this is something people get a lot more careful about as they get older, with 97% of over-55s saying they’d never open an unknown friend request. Given the fact that many teenagers and young people are vulnerable to exploitation by adults, and may be scared to tell parents or police about situations that they blame themselves for, this is a particularly scary statistic.
Q: Do you connect to public WiFi without protection (i.e. a VPN)?
We touched on this problem above, but using public WiFi without a VPN can open you up to all kinds of trouble. It’s super easy to spy on others in the same network, meaning others can hack in to see your screen and harvest any sensitive details – especially if you’re checking bank accounts, making online payments, or entering passwords of any kind.
Younger people are a lot more used to logging in to free WiFi wherever they happen to be. That’s not a problem provided they have proper protection in place, but our survey showed that the younger a respondent was, the more likely they were to use public WiFi without a VPN. Nearly two-thirds of under-22 year olds said that they do this, compared to one in five over-55s.
Protecting Card Details
Q: Do you save your credit card information to your computer when you make online purchases?
Re-entering card information every time you make a purchase can feel like a nuisance, but exercising care is often a smarter decision. Ever so often you hear about large-scale hacks of companies you’d never think would be vulnerable to attacks, leading to leaks of private and financial information that can spell serious problems for their customers.
Once again, the results of our survey showed a clear correlation between age and caution. In the two highest age brackets (43-54 and over 55), just a third and a quarter respectively said that they save their card details for future use. Those aged 23-42 were the worst culprits, with 43% saving their credit card information.
To their credit, under-22s were a little more careful at 38% – but this could simply reflect that teenagers are less likely to own their own credit cards or control how they make payments online. Here’s hoping they don’t succumb to convenience when they pass the 22-year mark!
Willingness to Learn
Q: Would you like more information about how to protect yourself online?
While younger generations didn’t come out of the survey looking like the most responsible internet users, it’s also important to point out that they were very willing to learn and improve.
44% of respondents under 22 years old and 43% of people aged 23-42 told us that they’d like more information on how to protect themselves online, compared to just 31% of over-55s.
Internet security is a serious issue for users at any age, but as our survey showed, younger people tend to be a lot more complacent about the issues at stake.
What this tells us is that people who grow up living their lives online tend to be the least vigilant about their safety – despite the fact that they are likely to be the people most at risk. If you fall into this category, it’s super important to keep educating yourself about online threats and to take important steps to make yourself secure. If you’re an older internet user with younger kids, don’t just leave it up to them: explain the dangers and invest in tools to minimize the risk.
Installing antivirus software, setting up a VPN, and making simple decisions like ignoring emails and friend requests from strangers go a very long way towards keeping you safe, preventing hacks and theft, and ensuring that only the people you trust can see the things you’d rather keep private. Don’t wait until a crisis to fix the leaks in your internet security!