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The Dark Web: What It Is & Why It’s Bad for Your Teen

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

What Is the Dark Web? 

You may have heard of the dark web. It’s the underground Internet that you can only access through special software, and it’s full of dangerous activity. The dark web hides your location and identity, so it is frequented by teens who want their digital activities to stay hidden.

On the dark web black markets, a teen can buy and sell almost anything—while staying totally anonymous. We’re talking all kinds of illegal drugs (heroin, benzos, Ecstasy, marijuana, to name a few), guns, and child pornographic material. Counterfeit money, stolen credit card information, hacked bank account information, forgeries, stolen artwork. To pay for these, one uses bitcoin or other forms of cryptocurrency.

Teens who have fallen prey to sex trafficking are advertised here. There are also services for things like computer-hacking and hitman-hiring. Videos of animal cruelty, torture, and murders. It’s all stuff that would make your insides turn. Not surprisingly, the dark web is popular with criminals, pedophiles, and other unsavory characters.

teen and the Dark Web

How to Access the Dark Web

These dark web sites are unsearchable to the general public. In order to browse its sites, one needs to download special free software. The most popular type of software is called Tor (which stands for “The Onion Router” as all the sites in the dark web end in .onion instead of .com). It’s called the “onion” router because the encryption process has many layers. The browsing speed on Tor is thus very slow, and such sites can often infect your computers with viruses. While most teens use Tor to browse the dark web, one can also use Tor to browse the surface web (aka the regular internet; what you’re using now) anonymously.

Not all activities on the dark web are nefarious. Some people use the dark web for political activism, especially if they live under regimes that censor free speech like Iran or China. There are whistleblower sites on Tor. Others use the dark web to avoid detection by stalkers or even the U.S. government. Interestingly enough, the U.S. Department of Defense originally founded the Tor software for top-secret intelligence projects – and they still fund Tor as a result. However, after it became accessible to the public, criminals and extremists began using it for illegal activities. There is no censorship on the dark web, so it’s hard to shut down because of the very encryption system that enables users to be hidden. When one site is closed, another starts up in a matter of days.

Teenager watching adult content

Your Teen and Tor

When it comes to the dark web and teens, there is a chance your teen might be using Tor to engage in illicit activity (like viewing porn or buying or selling drugs), your adolescent may simply be curious about what’s going on in the dark web. The problem is, even just browsing through the dark web poses dangers. Think of it as walking down a dark, unlit alley in an inner-city neighborhood. Sites pop up out of nowhere. Clicking on an innocent-sounding link may actually take you to a site displaying graphic abuse. There is a high chance, even if your child is just browsing, that he or she may stumble upon something that is truly horrific. And they cannot simply unsee it. While this can happen on the regular internet as well, it happens more frequently, and spontaneously, on Tor.

If your teen says he uses Tor for privacy reasons, you want to question why your teen wants to keep his digital footprint hidden. Sometimes adolescents use Tor to bypass blocked sites that a parent or school has filtered.

Why Is the Dark Web Dangerous for Teens

Why Is the Dark Web Dangerous for Teens? 

On the dark web, teens can make decisions that can impact their futures. Because it’s so unregulated and anonymous, the dark web facilitates illegal activities like drug trafficking, cybercrime, and exploitation. Its anonymity fosters an environment where teens can engage in harmful behavior without fear of consequences.

Is It Illegal to Use the Dark Web?

Using the dark web itself is not inherently illegal, as it serves legitimate purposes such as protecting privacy and enabling secure communication. However, many activities conducted on the dark web – such as accessing illegal marketplaces, purchasing illicit goods or services, or participating in criminal activities – are absolutely illegal. Therefore, while accessing the dark web is not illegal, engaging in unlawful activities while using it is against the law and can lead to legal consequences.

Mother consoling her teenager

Protecting Your Teen from the Dark Web

As a parent, you must be vigilant about protecting your adolescent or teen online. There are a certain amount of measures you can take to limit your adolescent’s access to the dark web. For one thing, you can block Tor or other applications that encrypt material. Check your computer’s Downloads folder. If you see any newly downloaded software, delete them immediately and ask your teen what they are. (In addition to Tor, other Dark Web software is called I2P or Freenet.)

Most importantly, educate your teen about internet safety and the dangers lurking on the dark web. If you trust that there is a legitimate reason for your child to use a private browser, encourage them to use “Incognito” mode on Google instead of Tor. Chances are, once your teen realizes what truly horrific things happen in this digital underground, they may be too ill-at-ease to visit it.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Dark Web 

What is the dark web?

The dark web is an underground form of the Internet that can only be accessed through special software. It’s full of illegal activity, providing location and identity anonymity to its users. 

What kinds of activities occur on the dark web?

The dark web hosts a wide range of activities, including illegal drug markets, weapon sales, hacking forums, counterfeit currency and documents, child exploitation, fraud schemes, and more. 

Is it safe to browse the dark web?

Browsing the dark web can expose users to various risks, including encountering illegal content, malware, scams, and surveillance. Users may also inadvertently break the law by accessing certain illegal websites or participating in illicit activities. When it comes to the dark web and teens, it’s dangerous for teens, so parents should educate their children on internet safety and openly communicate with their teens about their internet usage.

Can law enforcement track activity on the dark web?

Law enforcement agencies employ various techniques to monitor and track illegal activities on the dark web, including undercover operations, digital forensics, and collaboration with international partners. However, anonymity makes it challenging to identify and prosecute users engaged in criminal behavior.

Are there legitimate uses for the dark web?

While the dark web is primarily associated with illegal activities, there are legitimate uses as well. It can provide anonymity and privacy for whistleblowers, journalists, activists, and individuals living under oppressive regimes who seek to communicate securely or access censored information.

How can I protect myself while browsing the dark web?

To protect yourself while browsing the dark web, it’s essential to use security measures such as updated antivirus software, a secure VPN, and the Tor browser configured with appropriate privacy settings. Additionally, avoid clicking on suspicious links, refrain from sharing personal information, and be cautious when interacting with others online.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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