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Protecting Adolescent Safety: Independent Living

Angela Oswalt, MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Parents invest eighteen years of their lives protecting and nurturing their children. Therefore, it is only natural that parents continue to have a vested interest in their children's safety and well-being, even after they move out of the family home. Parents can ensure their children's continued safety by providing education about making their new dorm, apartment, or home the safest it can be.

Home Security

When youth live on their own for the first time, they need to know how to make their new home as safe as possible. Youth must develop the habit of always making sure their doors and windows are locked whenever they are showering, sleeping, playing loud music, or away from their home. They must learn to maintain possession of their keys at all times and to avoid leaving keys in places where they can easily be stolen (such as an unlocked gym locker) or leaving keys unattended, even momentarily (for instance, leaving keys on a library table while using the restroom). In the event youth lose their keys, they must understand their locks will need to be changed immediately, and that they should not return to their residence unaccompanied until the locks have been changed. This is a relatively simple and inexpensive procedure at college dorms that uses magnetic-strip key cards, as these keys can easily be re-programmed. For youth residing in an apartment or another private residence, it can be expensive to have the locks changed, and most landlords will charge their tenants for this work. Youth should be aware of this expense which may serve to motivate their careful protection of their keys.

Besides locking doors and windows, and maintaining control of their keys, youth should also assess other less obvious points of entry that may make them vulnerable to intruders, such as fire escapes and sliding glass doors, which even when locked, can easily be jimmied out of the track. Youth can inexpensively reinforce a sliding door by placing a wooden dowel rod in the door's tract. Youth should evaluate the privacy of their residence to prevent a potential intruder from observing their habits and possessions. If not already installed, you should purchase and install privacy curtains, blinds, or other window coverings and keeping them closed as much as possible, particularly at night. If youth live in a college dorm, they should adhere to their campus' rules about security protocols and avoid allowing strangers to pass through doors with them as they enter a secure area. If youth encounter someone they do not recognize in a secured area, they should not directly confront this person, but should report this situation to the dormitory resident advisor (RA), the landlord, or the police.

If there isn't a security system installed in the youth's new home, parents may want to consider purchasing one for the apartment or home. If a youth is renting, they may want to use a wireless security system that causes minimal disruption to a residence's structure, such as ripping out walls or permanently installing hardware. Wireless security systems use a telephone jack and electrical outlet for the base and require simple sensors to be screwed into window or door jams.

Some homes may have an intercom system, a peep hole in the door, or another means of visibly identifying someone requesting entry without actually opening the door to their building, or the door to their apartment. This provides another layer of security so that youth can always make sure they know who is coming before they permit entry. Furthermore, youth should not allow strangers into their home unless they verify a valid reason for them to be there, such as the landlord told them the plumber from Jack's Plumbing would be coming at that time. Intruders typically use some ruse to gain entry, often by appearing in a uniform. Youth should be taught they should validate any information provided by someone who wishes to gain entrance to their apartment. This includes verifying police badge numbers, gas/electric meter readers, and delivery personnel by taking a moment to call the agency or company responsible for sending someone to their home to confirm the identity and purpose of the visit. Whenever possible, flowers and other deliveries should be left outside the door. If delivery personnel indicate they require a signature, they can slide a signature paper under the door.

Internet and Mobile Phone Security

Youth also need to be careful what information they share about themselves and their life whenever they use social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Foursquare. If youth share that they are or will be away from their home at a specific time or for an extended period, they risk potential burglars knowing when they will be home alone without their roommates or housemates, or when they will be away from home. Home intruders and sexual predators comb these public websites to obtain this type of information.

Learning to self-censor what youth post about themselves on social media can also help to protect youth from identity theft, in which someone gains access to personal identity information in order to gain access to their bank accounts, their charge cards, or to use their identity to commit a crime. Youth need to learn to carefully protect their mobile phones, credit cards, identification cards, passport, and Social Security card. Mobile phones should be password protected to prevent someone from obtaining private information in the event the phone is lost or stolen. Youth should limit the number of personal identity documents they carry on their person particularly when these items are not needed. Infrequently used items such as a passport or birth certificate should be secured in a safe deposit box at the local bank, or in a fireproof safe at their home.

Youth should be careful about providing personal information while using the Internet for other purposes. If youth choose to make purchases, to pay bills, or to fulfill other activities Online, they should know how to check to see if the website is secure and encrypted for online transactions, and they should make sure they are using a secure Internet source. For example, if a youth use a wireless router in their apartment, they should make sure the router is password protected and the connection is encrypted. Furthermore, youth should be made aware of common scams that ask Internet users to divulge their passwords. Most internet service providers make this type of security information readily available to their subscribers.

In addition to securing personal identity documents, youth should use great care when handling documents with sensitive personal information such as college or car loan paperwork, pay stubs, bank statements, utility and credit card bills, and even credit card solicitations received through the mail. Youth should shred any paperwork they do not need before disposing or recycling it, and they should organize and keep track of the documents they do need to keep. Youth should also be careful not to share this information with others except when absolutely necessary, and they should routinely question any requests to provide any personal information. Furthermore, if youth receive bank or credit card communications by phone or email, they should always verify that the email or phone call was indeed initiated by the organization said to be represented, before complying with any requests for information.