School & District Management

How to Spot a Teenage Cyber-Hacker

By Alyson Klein — September 23, 2019 4 min read
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Close your eyes and imagine what a juvenile cybercriminal looks like. You’re probably picturing a super-tech savvy, loner teen typing away in a basement.

But a new research concludes that many hacker kids tend to have the same qualities as other children who engage in more traditional, troubled behavior out in the real, offline world.

What’s more, male and female students have different motivations for hacking.

Society has the idea that “a hacker is a lone kind of sophisticated computer-user,” said Thomas Holt, a cybercrime expert at Michigan State University, and the lead author of the study which examined cyber-security crimes within a broader pool of worldwide data on juvenile delinquency collected in 2007. “But in reality, hacking doesn’t have to be that complicated. If can be guessing someone’s password to get into their email account ... The entry points appear somewhat similar to traditional delinquency, which tells us that hacking may not be as unique as its often thought to be.”

That means when principals, teachers, and superintendents are trying to figure out which of their students may have the potential to get into trouble online, they may want to focus on not only the tech savvy kids but also the kids who are getting into problematic behaviors at an early age, Holt said.

In fact, low-self control is one of the biggest predictive factors in whether or not students are likely to turn to cybercrime, the researchers found.

That was true for both boys and girls in the study, Holt and his colleagues said.

Boys are more likely to turn to become hackers if they use drugs, spend a lot of time watching television, or play a tons of computer games. And girls are more likely to turn to cybercrime if they hang out with other kids who shoplift or engage in other types of petty theft. They’re also more likely to become hackers if their friends like to frighten or intimidate people “just for fun.”

That means, for girls, the pathway to cybercrime is “much more about their peer group,” Holt said.

Boys are also more likely to hack if they have their own computer, or phone. That kind of access to technology doesn’t matter as much for girls, the study found. And in general, boys are more likely to turn to cybercrime than their female counterparts.

“There may be something unique about being a boy and having access [to a computer] that isn’t necessarily there for girls.,” Holt said. That could be because, back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, using a computer was considered “boy-centric” behavior, he said.

“We’ve seen a very small representation of women in the hacker community, and in computer science. It’s been a slow sea change.”

Turning Away From Cyber-Crime

Other risk factors are environmental. Student hackers of both sexes are more likely to have parents who are of higher socio-economic status (meaning they own their own vehicle). Or the kids may have had other additional involvement in piracy. (For instance, obtaining movies online illegally).

And hackers in the sample may be more likely to live in small towns, or rural areas where there are fewer activities and less structured time. For instance, over 12 percent of kids pulled from a sample in rural North Carolina engaged in some simple hacks, like guessing a parent’s password. (Holt suggested that there may be an asterisk to that finding, since the international sample may have included more students from smaller cities and towns).

Of course, students with little self-control might not be so great at cybercrimes that require a lot of time and effort beyond just guessing a password. (Or finding one written on a post-it note).

“They may hack, they may not be very good at it,” Holt said. “If you’re a low impulse-control kid, you’re not going to sit around and figure it out. Kids with high self control might be more patient” and able to pull off more complicated cybercrime.

So what can schools do to help mitigate the risks from teen hackers? Holt suggests educating all students about the issue.

“Cyber-awareness campaigns become important,” he said. “Some of these simple hacks may be targeting their classmates. That may help protect and insulate their kids from some sorts of risks.”

What’s more, there’s “value in teaching kids that cybercrime will get you in trouble and here’s what you can do to protect yourself.”

Then there’s the big question of what, exactly, to do with students who are accused of hacking their school’s computers, or other types of cybercrime, especially of the more sophisticated variety. Cybersecurity experts urge schools to try to redirect these students to healthier and more productive online activities at any early age.

“You have to figure out the aptitude of these students and grab them quickly so that they can be put on the right track,” Davina Pruitt-Mantle, the lead for academic engagement at the National Institute for Cybersecurity Education told my colleague Ben Herold. (Don’t miss this revealing look at a pair of students in Michigan who hacked their school district’s computer network.)

Experts who study the future of work and technology trends expect that teenage cyber hacking could continue to be a problem in the future. How big a problem? A recent report suggested that there will be a need for more “juvenile crime rehabilitation counselors,” who try to convince student cyber-hackers to put their tech talent to more productive use, in the not-too-distant future.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.

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