Recently, someone asked me “what can college students do to stay safe online?” If they want to be 100% safe, here’s my advice — SMASH YOUR CELL PHONE!
But seriously, college students are under enough pressure already. They’re often away from home for the first time, discovering new aspects of their independence and freedom, and have brains that are not yet completely wired for the best decisions. Unfortunately, some of those decisions can come back to haunt them well into adulthood and their professional lives.
So, here are my top 3 recommendations for college students to be safe online.
1. Use a VPN on public wireless networks
I’ve talked about this before but it certainly bears repeating. When your device is on a public network, it can be seen by everyone else on that network! This is true everywhere you don’t have a unique password to log in. So if your dorm or lecture hall has everyone sharing the same network password, you’re at risk for having your laptop or device accessible to anyone else on that network. If you’re in an off-campus coffee shop and connect to their network, you are exposed.
The simplest way to protect your phone, laptop or tablet from data theft or snooping when you use public wireless is to download and use a virtual private network (VPN) application. This free or low-cost precaution essentially creates a private tunnel to the Internet that your device can use without being seen. Every time you want to connect to the Internet in public, you fire up your VPN and you become invisible.
2. Make email only for text
Think about email as a text platform only. It’s not safe otherwise. It was never meant for transferring files, and links are dangerous. Remember that email is the number one method that someone will use to put malware or ransomware on your machine. Unless you absolutely know that the email comes from someone you trust, don’t click! And even if it does come from someone you trust, be cautious. It could be a bad actor pretending to be someone you know. Think about every click as possible doom that could crash your hard drive or hold your end-of-term paper hostage for ransom.
3. Don’t be stupid on social media
You can literally ruin your life on social media. Employers are increasingly using social media to perform cyber background checks on potential hires. Remember that everything you do is being recorded – even if you’re not the one with the camera. Research shows that 27% college students don’t get jobs because of what turns up in their social media accounts. In practical terms, what can you do? Start with thinking about what you post – ask yourself, “Would my parents be OK with this? What would my grandmother say? Would an employer not hire me because of this?” If you get tagged in a photo that could be embarrassing, have your friends remove the tag or the photo so you’re not identified. Finally, don’t say hurtful, racist, or other offensive things online. Chances are, they will never go away and could lead to life-altering consequences, like expulsion.
We all know that college is hard. But it’s also meant to be wonderful. Avoid screwing it up by following these simple tips, and you’ll do great.