Here’s how to stay away from sexual predators, stalkers and online scams.

It is chilling news. A 14-year-old school girl in Bangalore hanged herself after being rejected by her “Facebook boyfriend.” He, a second-year B.Com student, apparently logged on to her Facebook homepage, tried to impress her with claims that he could “ride his motorcycle like a Hollywood star and drive like a Formula-1racer.” They met, got into a relationship, and he managed to extract from her the phone numbers and FB identities of her girlfriends. Later when she talked of marriage, he laughed it off saying he hadn’t been serious. She took her life. Another teen from Bengaluru sank into depression when the stranger she had befriended on FB abruptly stopped responding to her. She is now under psychiatric treatment.

Such stories underscore the dangers of cyberbullies, sexual predators and online scams that hook unsuspecting, vulnerable teens. But they can’t succeed without their allies — the teens themselves. You spend hours online — e-mailing, instant messaging, downloading music and updating Facebook pages. You visit game-sites, shop, gamble online. In these abstract territories you get trapped in a “cyber rip-tide.” Your schoolwork suffers, your family/friends relationships become strained. Watch out

“Social-engineering attacks are most common against teenagers,” says Govind Rammurthy, managing director and CEO, eScan. In their desperation to outdo peers on social media platforms and get “likes” and comments on their updates, teens unhesitatingly connect with strangers, unmindful of the repercussions. Perps gleefully take advantage of their naïveté, subject them to severe psychological pressure, and force them to give in to their various demands. “These are adult perpetrators,”, he warns, “and include pedophiles and scamsters.” Cybercriminals constantly scour public forums, social-networking platforms to find their potential victims.

Safety measures

Some crimes — cyberbullying, lewd-messaging, chatroom humiliation — stay online and others spill offline with more serious consequences. Stalking, false promises and cheating — the Internet has a part in all these now. A dangerous outcome is when home/e-mail addresses and phone numbers are used by predators to begin obscene attacks and con jobs on individuals and family.

Mr. Govind suggests these safety measures: No event or information which involves teens/their parents/close circle of friends should be made known to strangers or posted in public forums/social networking sites. Do not share with strangers your age, gender and location; information related to your parents/school; username/passwords for online services or personal photographs/videos.

Never get into an online slanging match with anyone, never post derogatory or insulting remarks about anyone. It will be used as evidence against you. The rules are the same as in the physical world.

Experts recommend that you keep online friendships, well, online. Meeting online friends face-to-face carries risks as it is easy for people to pretend to be something they're not. Take an elder along if you have to meet them in person. Watch out for cyberbullying. This can be annoying, even frightening. But do not answer back. Instead, get help from a parent, school counsellor or any trusted adult, especially when cyberbullying contains threats. If the bullying rides into your inbox, ask your parents to install controls to keep out spam. Get anti-virus software and update it regularly. Use a gender-neutral user-name in chatrooms to avoid spam and bullying. Never open links or files from strangers, forward them to others or respond to e-mails that contain inappropriate/discomforting material. Do not click gambling advertisements. In teen-chatrooms, the participants may not all be teenager or innocent. When you blog, keep in mind anyone can access what you are writing. If you dislike your school or friends, your blog or social media are not places to vent your gripe. Browsing the Net for a school project information? Make sure the author/website is credible. Is the information up-to-date? Is it from a well-known source/university? Double-check the information in other websites and stay away if it talks of things unrelated to the subject you are researching. Some websites flash inappropriate ads. Understand that the Internet is no longer private.

Be aware

Mr. Govind says, “We at eScan alert people about the latest trends in cyber-security, discuss preventive measures. We initiate CSR activities designed to spread knowledge of cybercrime.” Studies show that teens turn to the Internet to ward off loneliness, to find a sense of community and friendship they miss. Then they get depressed as a result of something written or posted on social-networking sites like Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr.

The real danger of trying to find solace online is this: you see only good things happening to people on Facebook and begin to compare that with your life, feel you don't measure up. And end up with depression. You can't stay off the Net – that is unworkable. If the internet isolates you from the physical family/friends, it also connects you to individuals and groups virtually. The trick is to take the good and learn to stay away from the bad.