teen data hacker

Unsplash/Arif Riyanto

Quick notes:

  • Different factors, such as peer associations, lead boys and girls to computer hacking. 
  • Always be suspicious of those movies and songs on their computer that you know they didn’t buy.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about what they’re doing on the computer, and monitor their computer usage.

Millions of parents know the drill — their teenage son or daughter is down in the basement, clicking away on their video games, computer, or smartphone, with no interest in sharing what they’re doing with mom or dad.

The thing is, ignoring your child’s excessive computer usage tendencies is a mistake, as they could be engaging in the online behavior that signals a shift into computer hacking, data fraud, and the possible interest of law enforcement authorities.

Fortunately, there is movement on several scientific and sociological fronts that can help parents spot a child’s computer usage habits and tendencies that may signal a shift toward data hacking.

At the top of that list is fresh data from Michigan State University that studies the behaviors that most commonly turn children from dedicated computer users to data hackers.

“We know much about the scope of hacking and its threat, but the problem is that we don’t know exactly when and how hacking behavior starts,” says Thomas Holt, lead author and MSU cybercrime expert in the School of Criminal Justice. “There is a general understanding that hacking starts in the early teens but until now, we weren’t clear on background factors, such as behavioral issues, the impact of social connections or personality traits. Our findings pointed us in the direction of thinking that there are gendered pathways to hacking.”

In a study of 50,000 teenagers around the globe, Holt says hacking tendencies differ among boys and girls.

“We found that predictors of juvenile delinquency, like low self-control — so, not having the ability to hold back when opportunity presents itself — are big factors for computer hacking for both boys and girls,” Holt says. “But for girls, peer associations mattered more. If she has friends who shoplift or engage in petty forms of crime, she’s more likely to be influenced to hack as well. For boys, we found that time spent watching TV or playing computer games were associated with hacking.”

5 red flags

What are the other signs your child could be a digital data hacker? Here are five at the top of the list.

Check their computer. Is all their browser history always clear? “If it’s only cleared some of the time that probably just means they’re a typical teen looking at something they shouldn’t be,” says Shayne Sherman, CEO of TechLoris in Mishawaka, Indiana. “If it’s always clear, it could be a sign of something more. Take a look at their encryption settings. If they’re adjusted to a higher level than the default then there might be a reason for their sophisticated secrecy.”

A dramatically improved report card. If a child suddenly shows a dramatic improvement on their report cards and you haven’t noticed any changes in dedication to their schoolwork, it’s possible they hacked their school’s computers. “Schools’ computers are among the most commonly targeted by hackers to improve grades,” Sherman says.

Check for “bragging rights.” The reddest of red flags revolves around being a “digital pirate,” which means your child has a tremendous amount of music, movies, and software that they could not have possibly paid for on their own, says Robert Siciliano, cybersecurity expert at IDTheftSecurity.com.

“If they brag that they already have a movie that’s in the theaters they are a hacker, if they have hundreds if not thousands of songs on their device that generally are a dollar each they are a pirate,” Siciliano says. “If they use all kinds of software on their devices that generally would require a financial investment that they didn’t make they are a hacker.”

Using “hacker” terms. If your child is using any language of hacking, such as “doxing,” “cracking,” “hash,” or “phishing,” that’s a potential sign he or she is into data hacking already, says Gabe Turner, director of content at Security Baron, a website dedicated to keeping users safe online and offline. “Also, if your child refers to himself and his friends as hackers or script kiddies, or your child has multiple email addresses and social media profiles on the same platform (such as multiple Facebook accounts) it’s time to have a chat,” says Turner.

Strange “onions.” According to Turner, if you’ve noticed your child is using The Onion Router, also known as Tor, that’s a big red flag. “This browser is used to access the dark web, where they might be looking at hacking forums,” says Turner. “If your child is making money from playing games online, that’s another warning sign.”

Talk to your kids

Parents shouldn’t assume that having a kid with sophisticated technological competency is always totally fine, Holt says.

Keep your eyes open and if your child is a digital wunderkind, start steering them in the right direction.

“Finding others in the field — like those you’d meet in a robotics club or attending something like the DefCon conference — is vital for kids to learn about using their skills in a positive way and for staving off bad behaviors,” Holt says. “Cybercrime can be a hidden problem, so talking is vital. The more you can understand what they’re doing, the easier you can flag something that might be off and curtail activity.”

Additionally, it’s important to regularly monitor your child’s computer usage.

“Put the computer in a public place so that you’ll see everything that they do,” Turner advises. “Set up parental controls, limiting the sites that they can visit. You can use built-in parental control software for Windows, Macs, and other types of computers.”

If your child wants to have a social media account, make yourself an administrator or require that they give you their usernames and passwords, allowing you to check in periodically, Turner adds. “Educate your child on the risks of using the Internet,” he says. “There are many children’s online safety books available from Amazon.”

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Read all about the 414s, the infamous group of teenage computer hackers from the early ’80s.

Protect yourself from hackers with these tips.

Check out the incredible story of the woman who contributed so much to technology.