For young people, the internet can be a vital source of information, recreation, escape and more, but without the right guidance it can also be unsafe. Online games particularly make prime targets for cybercriminals, and there are also concerns that gaming networks can lead players astray, or even act as a criminal breeding ground.

Whatever the reasons might be, the fact is that teenagers are getting involved in cybercrime at an increasingly early age. According to recent statistics by the UK’s National Crime Agency (NCA), for example, the average age of cybercrime suspects over the last year was just 17 years-old, dropping dramatically from 24 years-old the previous year. This is clearly a worrying shift, and – according to the NCA – it could stem from a lack of understanding around what constitutes cybercrime.

Richard Jones, head of the National Cyber Crime Unit’s Prevent team said: “Over the past few years the NCA has seen the people engaging in cybercrime becoming younger and younger. We know that simply criminalising young people cannot be the solution to this and so the campaign seeks to help motivate children to use their skills more positively.”

“We want these young people, and their parents, to understand that choosing [the wrong] path can result in a criminal record, can limit their choices for their future, and can put restrictions on their daily lives including the loss of access to the internet.”

So, what are the facts that teens and their parents need to be aware of?

What is cybercrime, exactly?

It’s easy to imagine cybercrime attacks being carried out by mastermind hackers in shady rooms, requiring access to hugely expensive computer equipment. The reality is often a lot more mundane.

The truth is that cybercrime can mean any illegal behavior involving a computer, computer networks or ICT – from the spread of malware right down to seemingly innocuous ‘cheats’ like stealing online game gold from other players.

Some of the most common forms of cybercrime include:

  • Hacking – More simply, this means to access someone’s (or a company’s) computer network without their permission. When hacking makes the headlines it can involve privacy scares or financial fraud for huge sums of money, but it could equally be something as simple as accessing the secure area of a school network.
  • Making, supplying or obtaining malware – If your computer has ever been infected with malware (e. g. virus, trojan, worm, etc.), then you know how annoying malware can be. It’s also illegal and dangerous. This malicious software isn’t just made to slow down your computer, though, cybercriminals can also use it to access other computers and carry out illegal activities. Even ‘pranking’ – where that other computer might belong to a friend and the only thing that’s been altered is their desktop background – entails the risk in most jurisdictions of being considered illegal.
  • DDoS attacks – Short for Distributed Denial of Service, DDoS attacks are a way of bringing down a website by sending it lots of traffic over a concentrated period – banks, businesses and governments are frequent targets. Kicking somebody offline in a game might seem trivial by comparison, but it may still against the law.

What are the consequences?

Even if young people don’t know when they’re committing a crime, the law is much more black and white. Cybercrime is taken very seriously, with punishments ranging from a warning or fine for the smallest offences, right the way up to an internet ban or 10 years in prison for a serious crime.

Should I be worried about my child?

In a world in which computers have become such an integral part of our everyday lives, it can be hard to distinguish whether somebody’s online activity is illegal or perfectly healthy. This is particularly true in cases where parents aren’t as IT literate as their kids – but what’s the solution?

Having an honest conversation about about your child’s online habits is a good place to start. If a teen is spending hours each day on the internet, then it’s perfectly natural to find out how they’re spending their time online. It might be something completely normal, but if they’re reluctant to explain then you might be right to be concerned.

Irregular sleeping patterns and social isolation might be other tell-tale signs, while teens receiving an income for their online activities might also be a cause for concern – or at the very least worthy of investigation. Speak to the child and see how you can support them, while making sure they're aware that seemingly anonymous actions online can have serious consequences.

What else can I do?

As per the NCA’s #CyberChoices campaign, the best way is to protect your child is to encourage and support their interest, rather than push them to express it in the wrong ways. A talent for coding can be hugely beneficial (and profitable) in later life, so look into the many positive outlets that can nurture it.

Local courses, classes and clubs are likely to be just a quick online search away, here there's a list with a few wider initiatives to get you (and your child) started on the right path:

  • Inspired Careers – A virtual hub providing information on cybersecurity careers.
  • CREST – Not-for-profit organization providing qualifications for cybersecurity professionals.
  • The Tech Partnership – Links for tech apprenticeships.
  • Tech Future Girls – Teaching coding, video editing and cybersecurity to girls aged 10-14 years-old

Want to do more to protect your kids online? Read our top cybersecurity tips for parents.