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 nefarious activity. The dark web hides your location and identity. As such, 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, 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 hitmen-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.
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.
It’s important to note that 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.
Your Teen and Tor
While 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 un-see 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.
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.