Tech-savvy teens are figuring out ways to get past parental controls, reset passwords, install software and other activities that frustrate parents.

 

In November 2013, an American teenager admitted to hacking into the webcam of Cassidy Wolf, the winner of the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant. 19 year-old Jared James Abrahams used stolen photos to blackmail the teenage beauty queen, and now faces up to eleven years in prison and fines that could total $1 million.

In fact, Abrahams had been taking advantage of his computer skills over a two-year period, without the knowledge of his parents.

Cases of webcam spying, for instance, are occasionally reported in tech press and local papers, but Abrahams' crime has been brought to mainstream attention thanks to the prominence of his victim.

How common are teenage hackers?

Abrahams' case is not unprecedented, though it may be among the most serious. A teenage hacker known as Dshocker carried out attacks on tens of thousands of computers in the United States until the Boston police caught up with him in 2008, at which point he was only 17 years old.

During his crime spree, Dshocker stole credit card information and broke into corporate computer systems. The courts sentenced him to eleven months in a juvenile detention centre.

"Dshocker stole credit card information and broke into corporate computer systems. He was only 17 years old."

Across the world in New Zealand, another teen hacker was busily infiltrating computers around the world. As the leader of an international crime ring, Owen Thor Walker led a group that hacked into more than a million computers in order to skim $20.4 million from private bank accounts. When he was caught in 2007, he was 18 years old. Walker is now a cybercrime consultant.

While these stories are shocking, they are, thankfully, relatively rare. Most teens are simply content to use their "hacking" skills on the family computer to increase their online freedom. Such tech-savvy teens have figured out ways to get past parental controls, reset passwords, install software and other activities that frustrate their parents.

Fortunately, once spotted, situations like these can be solved without further issue. We've answered five of the most common questions below. Get in touch on Twitter or Facebook and we'll be happy to help you find an answer to yours.

Q. We set up parental controls on our computer, but my son found a way to use the router to change the settings. How did this happen and what can we do to prevent it from happening again?

A. It sounds like your son may have gained access to the manual for the router (which he could have downloaded from the Internet). From the manual, he would have learned how to reset the password to the default. From there, he could have changed settings and turned off the filtering you'd put in place.

What you have here is an issue of administrative privileges. Anyone with administrative access on a computer can change settings and install software. Your best bet to avoid a repeat is to create accounts for each user in the household and set different levels of access. For example, the parents get to download software, the kids don't. If the kids want to purchase an MP3 or an upgrade for their videogame software, they have to come to you. Most importantly, don't forget to log out of your account when you're done using the machine.

Q. We don't want my teenager to view inappropriate images online, so we blocked his access to specific sites. To get around this, he searches for other sites we haven't blocked. What can we do to keep him from viewing these images?

A. One of the easiest ways to gain access to someone's login is to click the "Forgot your password?" link that appears on most login screens. Password information is then sent to the email address attached to the account. If the email address was yours, your teenager may have known or figured out the password to your email and retrieved the password to the parental controls. Once logged in, settings can be changed to any level desired.

Where software solutions fall short, responsible parenting needs to come in. Talk to your son to better understand his behaviour. It's also important to discuss the family rules on viewing online content and guide him in his online activities.

Q. After a few days of not realising it, I discovered that my teenager had figured out my computer password and logged in, resetting the parental controls we had installed. How did this happen?

A. The simple answer is, not much if you're going to rely exclusively on blocking sites. One solution is to do the reverse of what you're doing now by setting up a "white list." A white list is a list of sites that a child is allowed to see - as opposed to a list of sites the child is not allowed to see. While the white list approach is generally used for younger children, it could be effective in your case, too.

The lesson here is never to use a password that anyone can guess, especially those who know you. This is a standard of online safety.

The first step is to change all of your passwords. I propose this formula: Take a phrase that has meaning to you, like "I graduated Grant High School in '81." Turn that into "igghs81." Now, customise it for each website you log in to. For Symantec, you would put an "S" in front of it ("Sigghs81"), and so on. That way you have a complex password that is different for each site, yet something you can remember.

Q. I discovered that my teenager changed the Web filtering through another browser he installed. How was he able to do that?

A. This is also a problem of administrative access. Without such privileges, your child would not be able to install software. By creating separate user accounts for your home computers, you can ensure that only you, the parents, have the ability to install software such as another browser.

There's no doubt parenting teenagers is harder than parenting little ones who are just so thrilled to be online and emailing. Older ones are learning to establish privacy and identity - that's a good thing. Your role is to help guide them away from things that may damage their online reputation and help them have a safe experience online.

Q. Should I be worried about my child being a hacker?

A. In short - no. As stated above, cases like Abrahams' are relatively rare, but the fact of the matter is that almost anyone could use "hacking" skills to disrupt if they wanted to, and this kind of knowledge is only a Google search away.

There's no doubt parenting teenagers is harder than parenting little ones who are just so thrilled to be online and emailing. Older ones are learning to establish privacy and identity - that's a good thing. Your role is to help guide them away from things that may damage their online reputation and help them have a safe experience online.

The Internet comprises a large part of our everyday lives, from casual surfers at home to major corporations in the office The idea that a teenager with the right skills and knowledge can manipulate this is exciting to some,but most kids are just happy to have a world of entertainment at their fingertips.

For the overwhelming majority of families, protection with parental controls is enough to keep kids on the straight and narrow.