Internet Safety

Young women's version of this guide

Asian Teen Playing or Working on a Laptop Computer

The Basics

What does the Internet look like?

The internet is an enormous computer network made up of websites, services, and files. There is a huge amount of information and services available “online.” You might use the Internet for things like:

  • Researching information
  • Playing video games
  • Watching videos
  • Streaming music
  • Emailing, instant messaging, and chatting
  • Using social networking sites
  • Using apps

You can access the Internet from a computer, laptop, smart phone, tablet, video game console, smart speaker, and any other device that connects to the Internet. Anyone can post information online, so it’s important to think critically about what you read and do online.

What is email?

“E-mail” is short for “electronic mail.” You can write an e-mail using an email service (such as Gmail) on your computer or smartphone, and then send it via the internet to be read by other people. In regards to email safety, there are a few things to be aware of:

  • Think twice before opening an email. When you receive an email, always check the source before clicking any links in the email, and before replying or forwarding.
  • “Phishing” attempts are common, in which an email, appearing to be from a legitimate source such as your bank or PayPal, asks for personal information such as passwords, banking information, or your social security number. Legitimate websites will never ask for this type of information in an email.
  • Anything sent via email can be forwarded to other people, so be cautious about anything you write, or images you attach to the email
  • Viruses are often sent via email, so it’s important to not open links or attachments (pictures, music, etc.) from email addresses that you don’t recognize, even if they look legit.

What should I know about downloading?

“Downloading” means copying content from the internet and saving it on to your computer, smartphone, or tablet. Downloading can be a quick and easy way to get a photo, video, game, app, PDF, or another file. For example, you can download songs or movies on iTunes, or get the latest version of a browser from the Google Chrome website.

Remember: Only download known content from trustworthy sources to avoid copying harmful or unwanted files. If you don’t know where the file is coming from, it’s better not to download it because of the risk of downloading a virus that may harm your device. If you begin downloading something by mistake, it’s likely that there is an “X,” “Stop,” or “Cancel” button that you can click to cancel the download.

Also make sure you always have an updated version of virus protection software on your computer. Handheld devices including smartphones and tablets can also become infected with viruses. This can happen for example if you download an attachment from a sketchy website or you visit a “phishing” website that collects information from your mobile browser. Most of the companies that make anti-virus software for computers/laptops now have a version for mobile devices, and some are free.


Information Quality

Most people agree that the internet has changed their lives for the better; however, being able to find information and communicate with others online can be challenging sometimes. It’s often hard to know whether the information that you find online is true.

What online information can I trust?

Being able to tell if something on the internet is accurate is tough for everyone, not just teens. Always question any information you read online until you’re able to figure out whether or not it’s true.

Keep in mind that there’s no way to know for sure that the information you find on a site is completely trustworthy. When trying to decide if you can trust something online, you’ll probably want to use many of these tips to help you evaluate whether or not the information is reliable. Once you find a reliable website, you can bookmark it or add it as a favorite so you can easily find it again later.

Here are some general tips on how to tell if a website and information posted is reliable:

  • Check the sources.Look for the name of the organization, the author(s) of the website, and the most recent date that the information was updated. Reliable websites often have an “About” or “About Us” page that will give you information about the people or organization that has created the information. Reliable sites often have a list of references that include the source of the information. If the website is created by a person rather than an organization, finding out why they’re publishing the information might help you to figure out whether it’s reliable.
  • Check the URL. Sometimes the URL can give you clues about the accuracy of the information it provides. Below are
    • .com addresses are often connected with a commercial site or a company that is selling something. For example, a site where you can purchase something.
    • .org web addresses are usually owned by an organization. For example, this site ( is connected with Young Men’s Health.
    • .net addresses are commonly used by internet technology organizations, such as internet service providers (ISPs) and other communication companies.
    • .uk (United Kingdom) or .ca (Canada) are examples of endings that are used or reserved for a specific country.
    • .gov addresses are US government websites. The US government has a health site at:
    • .edu sites are reserved for “educational institutions” such as schools, colleges, and universities. One example of a university website is:
  • Check the appearance. Judging a website based on appearance only can be extremely subjective, which means that what looks legit to you might not look legit to someone else. It’s best to go with your gut; if the information or the way it’s presented seems sketchy or makes you uncomfortable, then that’s probably a clue that the site you’re evaluating isn’t reliable. If the information presented is convincing, you’ll probably come across it in other sources (such as a book or scholarly journal) as well, which will help you ensure that the information you find is accurate.
  • Check the outgoing links. If the website provides links to other sites, click on them. If the site or information you’re taken to is reliable, it’s likely the original website is trustworthy.
  • Check the dates. Be sure to check the date(s) that the information on the site was last updated or revised. This will help you figure out if the site is maintained regularly and if the information is current.
  • Check the facts. If you’re looking for facts, check out a few different websites to compare information. If you find the same information from a few different sources, you can be fairly sure you’ve found correct information. You’ll also know which websites are reliable and can visit them again in the future.
  • Check with people. Librarians and teachers are usually good resources to help you identify accurate and trustworthy websites. If you’re looking for reliable health information, you can ask your health care provider(s) what sites they recommend.


Social Networking/Privacy

What’s a social networking site?

A social networking site (also known as social media) is a website or app that focuses on building social networks and relationships between people. Joining a social media site lets users create personal profiles that may include photos, music, and videos, as well as the chance to chat with friends. Some of the most popular social networking sites include Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit. Some social networks (mostly those that focus on chatting) are available in the form of mobile apps, such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, and Kik. Most social media sites require that you be at least 13 years old.

I joined a social networking site. What should I know about privacy settings?

When joining a social networking site, it’s very important to go through your privacy settings. At first, your privacy settings will be set to “default”—this means that whatever social network you’ve joined has already put some privacy settings in place for you. For instance, when you first join Facebook, the default settings may be already set as “private,” but people may still be able to see certain parts of your timeline. It’s important to go into the privacy settings (for any social network you join) and customize them yourself, because the “default” settings might not be right for you. For example, this page is a great resource for helping you understand privacy settings on Facebook.

Additionally, social media privacy rules and options can change over time, so it’s a good idea to revisit your settings from time to time and make sure they’re up to date.

Other things to think about when you’re on a social networking site:

If the social media site you’re on allows you to create custom groups (such as “family,” “school friends,” “basketball friends,” etc.) it may be a good idea to use different privacy settings for each group. That way you’re not sharing all of your personal information with everyone. This is especially important because future employers, college recruiters, coaches, and others frequently check online profiles. Think about if you’d feel comfortable taking a copy of your profile with you on a job or college interview. If you wouldn’t want a future employer or college admissions committee to see your profile, you should probably edit it or change your privacy settings so that your profile and photos are completely private and hidden from the public.

Also, remember to NEVER share your passwords or login information, even with a good friend. If you have shared your passwords with someone, or suspect that your account has been hacked, delete the account as soon as possible (you can always create a new account with a new password). A good password has at least 8 characters and is a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. To further protect your accounts, change your passwords regularly, and never write them down.

Is it ok to post photos and videos on these sites?

Many social media sites (such as Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr) let users post photos and videos to their profile. As always, it’s important to be aware of what your privacy settings are so you know who is able to view your photos and videos. It’s also important to be critical when choosing which photos and videos to post online. Once something is on the internet, it’s very hard to control who has access to it. Anyone who is able to view a photo or video from your profile can save or repost it, and you can quickly lose control over where your content shows up online. A good rule when posting a photo or video is to think about if you would be ok with anyone seeing it: a friend, future employer, parent, or stranger. If you wouldn’t be ok with anyone seeing it, it probably doesn’t belong online.

How can I choose a safe online name?

When setting up an account on a social media site such as Facebook or Twitter, you’ll be asked to fill out information, including your real name and e-mail address. Some social networking sites give you the option to choose a username. Although you might want to choose a username that describes you in some way, remember that some names can be unfairly judged by people who don’t know you very well. For example, a username such as “jackeddude13” may attract inappropriate e-mails. Instead, you could create a name out of a combination of letters and numbers, the name of a candy bar, your favorite color, or something else that’s not too personal. If the name is already taken, you can try adding a few numbers, for example, Green123 or BruinsFan18; however, you shouldn’t use your house number, birth date, age, or any other personal number.

What about texting?

Texting (also called messaging or DMing—direct messaging) is a way of having a conversation with someone by typing and sending messages through a smartphone, computer, social media site, or messaging app. Texting and messaging can occur privately between two people, or can involve a group of people, and in addition to text, photos and videos can easily be shared.

Common texting/messaging apps include Snapchat, WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook Messenger, Yik Yak, LINE, and Viber. Most other social media sites also offer a way to DM, such as Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Tips for interacting with others online:

  • Keep your private information private.Don’t give out your password or personal information; it’s always safer to keep that information private from others.
  • Be careful who you trust.Remember that no matter how long you’ve talked to someone online, they’re still a stranger and may not really be the person they say they are online.
  • Learn how to block/ignore/report people.Each social networking site is different, but there’s always a way to block, ignore, unfriend, and report users with whom you don’t want to communicate.
  • Avoid sexting.While it may seem like all of your friends are sending sexually explicit photos or videos, this isn’t necessarily the case, and you should not feel pressured to engage in any sort of sexting.


Photo/Video tips: Think twice before sending any photos or videos, whether group pictures or selfies. Although some messaging apps claim that messages, photos, and videos will “disappear” or “expire” after a set amount of time, there are ways to get around these features, and once a picture or video is sent, there is no guarantee of privacy. Don’t send inappropriate photos or videos of yourself, even if you’re sending them to someone you trust like a girlfriend or boyfriend. These photos and videos can easily end up in the hands of anyone–such as a teacher, future employer, or family member.


The terms “bullying” and “cyberbullying” are used to describe the same unwanted and mean behavior towards another person: if someone is threatening, harassing, or humiliating another person, they are being a bully. The big difference is that bullying happens in person, while cyberbullying happens online (via email, instant messaging, text, social networking sites, or other mobile apps and websites).

Bullying and cyberbullying are mean behaviors that:

  • Are intentional—the bullying is being done on purpose.
  • Involves an imbalance of power—the aggressive person uses some sort of power over his/her victim. He or she may feel powerful because they are popular, physically stronger, or have access to embarrassing information.
  • Happens repeatedly—more than just a couple of times.


Bullying and cyberbullying are not:

  • Once in a while, or a one-time event, where a person puts someone else down.
  • Posting something on your timeline that might offend others.
  • Disagreements, fights, or mean words that result from misunderstandings.

What counts as bullying and cyberbullying?

Bullying and cyberbullying can happen face to face, or behind someone’s back. It can also involve actions that border on discrimination, whether it’s about sexuality, gender, race, class, or something else.

Bullying can take many forms, including:

  • Verbal: Threatening to hurt someone, regularly insulting someone to their face, making inappropriate sexual comments
  • Physical: Hitting or tripping someone, throwing things at someone, breaking someone’s things
  • Social: Embarrassing someone in public, spreading rumors, telling someone not to be friends with someone else

Cyberbullying can take many forms, including:

  • Making mean or hurtful comments online (including doing so anonymously)
  • Creating a website or social media group to make fun of someone else
  • Editing photos to make them more embarrassing, and sharing them online
  • Pretending to be someone else online, and saying hurtful or embarrassing things as that person
  • Sharing private texts, messages, and photos of someone else without their permission

It can be difficult to escape cyberbullying, since we live in a connected society where we spend a lot of time using technology. It can also be hard (but not impossible) to figure out who is doing the cyberbullying online if the person is doing it anonymously.

Bullying and cyberbullying aren’t totally different things. They’re examples of the same kind of behavior — with the same social, cultural, and human roots — in different contexts. It’s often hard to separate bullying and cyberbullying, since your experience of the online and offline worlds are so closely connected. For example, many online victims know their bullies in real life (although they might only be bullied by him or her online). Conflicts dealing with relationships that start out offline may carry over to social media sites, cell phones, etc., or vice versa, and escalate or turn into cyberbullying. For example: A prank pulled in the locker room at school results in ongoing social humiliation through pictures shared via cell phones and online. Another example could start with a nasty Facebook post which leads to bullying at school.

Still, things aren’t always crystal clear.

It’s important to keep in mind that conflicts that start out as jokes, misunderstandings, or arguments can escalate and lead to ongoing bullying situations.

What’s more common – bullying offline or online?

Both types of bullying often go hand-in-hand. Research studies show that offline bullying is more common among middle-school students, but online bullying tends to be more common among high-school students. Also, girls are more likely to be victims of cyberbullying and yet they are also more likely than boys to be the person who uses cyberbullying to hurt someone else. Boys are more likely to bully in person.

What roles do people play in bullying?

Different roles include the bully, victim, bully-victim, and bystander; however, these roles aren’t always clear-cut. For example, bully-victims are people who are victims, but also bully others. Bystanders observe an act of bullying happening to someone else.

Regardless of what role a person plays, being involved in bullying both online and offline is connected with certain negative psychological, social, and academic consequences, including low self-esteem, trouble with sleeping, relationship problems, depression, and less success in school.

Other things to know about bullying at school:

Your relationship with your friends and others at school can affect the way you feel about bullying and can also affect your involvement in it. If you’re comfortable in your social group and your friends don’t support bullying, you likely won’t either. People who have friends who don’t support bullying are also more likely to stand up for the victim if they witness bullying. However, if your friends are bullying others, it can be easy to give into peer pressure and take part in bullying with them.

What is “trolling?”

“Trolls,” or people who “troll,” are users who purposefully post inflammatory or controversial comments in order to provoke other users and create arguments. The best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them. If you respond to their comments, you will encourage them to continue posting rude or hateful posts. If a troll is posting repeatedly or making rude or offensive comments, you can also report them to the hosting site, and they may be removed or forbidden from making future comments.

What should I do if I’m being cyberbullied?

Instead of responding to the cyberbully, save the messages or inappropriate pictures. You can also take a screen shot while the bullying is going on, because the bully may be able to delete the offending message or picture at any point. Tell an adult what happened or seek support from a close, trusted friend. In extreme cases, it may be necessary for you to report a bullying/cyberbullying situation to school officials and/or the police.

If this happens, you should be ready to answer the following questions:

  • What exactly was said? (Print out a copy of the message/post/picture, or show the saved text message or screenshot)
  • Where/how was it said? (IM, text, specific social media site, etc.)
  • How often has the threat occurred?
  • Do you know who is responsible for the threats? (Answer this question honestly. Do you know exactly who it is? Do you think you know who is doing it? Or do you not have any idea who is making the threats?)

You can also report abuse to the online application that was used to deliver the harassing behavior. For instance, if someone is repeatedly posting mean comments about you on Facebook, you can report the comments as spam, and secure your account to prevent the bully from contacting you. If someone is sending e-mails to your Gmail account that violate Gmail policies, fill out the form to report the abuse. Remember that you can usually block and filter users from contacting you by adjusting your privacy settings.

If you or someone you know is being bullied, speak up! Below are some resources with tips on how to handle bullying and cyberbullying:

Stop Bullying on the Spot

Teens Against Bullying

Dealing With Bullying

Preventing Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying Tips for Teens

If you or someone you know is feeling severely depressed or suicidal as a result of bullying, get help right away! Tell an adult and go to the closest emergency room.  You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and read more in our Suicide Prevention health guide.