Where would most of us be without our computers? Totally lost, probably.
We depend on our computers for work and play. The computer is where we shop, where we bank, where we store the addresses for our holiday greeting-card mailings, and so on.
Yet despite being so dependent on computers, many users still shrug off the need to be vigilant about security and potential threats.
One exposure to a virus, worm or Trojan can open up a computer to attacks from hackers — a problem that gets worse if the home computer is linked to a parent's office network or contains sensitive work data.
Malware has moved far beyond hiding inside an email attachment. These days, a computer can be infected by a Trojan embedded into a trusted website. And many of the sites that teenagers like to visit are loaded with malware.
False sense of security
GFI Software of Cary, N.C., decided to see how families with teenagers approach computer security.
Their findings, revealed in GFI's 2011 Parent-Teen Internet Safety Report, showed that most families have a false sense of security — which puts the family, its information and perhaps even the parents' workplaces at risk.
For example, three-quarters of parents and teenagers surveyed by GFI said they were confident their computer wouldn't be infected by a computer virus — which totally contradicted the simultaneous finding that two-thirds of the respondents admitted that their computers had been infected at least once.
"The results clearly indicate a false sense of security," said Eric Howes, research business analyst at GFI. "Many people believe if they just have any anti-virus product installed, that they have nothing to worry about.
"However, many parents do not realize that the anti-virus software that was preloaded on their new PC has expired," Howes said. "They are no longer obtaining the latest virus definitions to protect them against new malware threats."
Howes thinks there are a couple of computer security risks that parents are missing or not doing enough to prevent.
First, the number of attack points has increased.
"The home computer is no longer the only means to access the Internet," Howes said. "More and more kids have smartphones with full Internet access and messaging capability, and they can browse and chat without their parents looking over their shoulders."
Although malware attacks on smartphones are on the rise, there are more serious threats to consider, such as cyberbullying and sexting. Parents are often either unaware of these threats or don't have the technical know-how to prevent them.
Second, kids are becoming more and more tech-savvy. They are using computers and devices for most of the day — at home, at school, at their friends' houses.
Teenagers are fast learners, and if there are ways to cover their tracks and do things behind their parents' backs, they'll find them. This makes it much harder for parents to learn what their kids are up to, let alone control them.
Catch up to the kids
It is absolutely vital that parents be as tech-savvy as their children, said Lynette T. Owens, director of Internet Safety for Kids & Families, an online resource hosted by Trend Micro, a global digital-security firm based in Tokyo.
"Parents should become users of the same tools that their kids will use," Owens said. "You don't have to be a power user to understand social networks. Just spend a few minutes setting up an account so you can understand how it works, how to set up privacy settings, etc. The same goes for tools like Twitter, Google+, Flickr, video and music streaming services, etc.
"It is difficult to teach a teen how to drive if you’ve never driven yourself. And driving is an important life skill," Owens added. "So we teach kids to understand the rules, consider safety (check mirrors, keep maintenance of car up-to-date, obey speed limits, never text while driving) and practice. The same concepts apply to technology."
Sedgrid Lewis, founder of Atlanta-based Spy Parent LLC, recommends three steps parents can take to be sure computer-related risky behavior is kept to a minimum.
First, parents need to install anti-virus software if they don't have it already.
"Parents have to download a premium anti-virus package to protect their computers," Lewis said. "Free software is good, but you have to get the premium software for ultimate protection."
Lewis also urges that parents keep an eye on how many browsers are on a computer.
"Teens are notorious for downloading different browsers to get around their parents' parental controls," he said. "If the house is using Internet Explorer, then there should not be another browser on the computer."
Finally, parents should create an administrative-rights account on the family computer, and limit the privileges of all other accounts.
"Only the administrator (hopefully the parent) will have access to download any software on the computer," Lewis said.
Howes recommended that parents also install Web-monitoring software. The software runs in the background so most teenagers have no idea it's there, but it tells parents exactly what their kids are doing online.
Finally, Lewis said, parents need to be better online role models.
"Most parents are engaging in dangerous computer practices themselves," he said. "For example, [they are] engaging in piracy by downloading free music from peer-to-peer sites such as Limewire.
"Parents have no clue that these sites have a ton of viruses," Lewis said. "Unfortunately, some parents will only address the issue when they are hit with the bill for computer repair."