Winter break is over, and children have returned to school armed with new phones, laptops and other devices. I witnessed the excitement of a pair of fifth graders receiving laptops for Christmas. I can’t recall what I wanted at that age—probably games or a bike—but surely a laptop wasn’t on my list.
I watched one sister help the other to set up her laptop. Her father set up hers first, and after he left the room, she decided she knew enough to help her sister. She paused the wizard once to ask me if they should accept the software update. These eleven-year-olds created their own login credentials, entered their home network password and quickly finished the set up process. I asked what they planned to do with their laptops. School work was the first answer, watching videos on YouTube followed, and then I zoned out because I was distracted by a moment of fear, considering all of the bad that comes with the good of having access to the internet.
My follow up questions focused on what they learned in school about cyber security. The answer—not that much, even in their upscale neighborhood elementary school. They have basic awareness with terms such as “attackers,” and they know not to share passwords, but the learning curve is steep. Parents have to take and maintain a leading role in cyber security education, and they also should establish guidelines and rules that can be followed / monitored. At the very least, like everything else in life, they need to provide enough information to help children make good, informed choices.
Obviously, there are many articles available to help parents inform children, but let’s face it, many adults don’t even understand or follow best practices. I couldn’t help but wonder, do parents who work in the cyber security industry do a better job of teaching children about cyber security best practices?
I asked a few of my colleagues about what they teach and what information they believe to be the most important. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that many of them volunteer as guest speakers on the subject at local schools.
From these conversation three themes stand out:
- Privacy: The lives of children are documented in an unprecedented way considering the high volume of photos, selfies and other information that is shared online from a young age—often by parents who are thrilled to share every milestone. Explaining the concept and value of privacy is an important lesson. Children frequently use devices to share pictures, experiences, thoughts and more, so they have to learn there are lasting consequences – their digital profile builds over time with every action. Screenshots are just one way to extend the reach and shelf life of a message or image. Encourage them to think of examples of what they shouldn’t share including inappropriate pictures and potentially offensive posts. Remind them everything is public. After all, there aren’t secrets online. It’s easy to make a mistake that might be irreversible and hurt many.
- Power: One of my colleagues recently had a session with high school students. They talked about the concept of security and the consequences of being unsecure. He used some examples to help students think like an attacker in order to better understand the importance of defense. Students today have access to powerful tools that are freely available online and can do a lot of damage if used inappropriately. For example, there are encryption packages available for download, there are open source offensive tools in GitHub, and there are services that provide extreme compute, storage and analytics resources. Such resources can support brilliant and cool projects, but these tools could also be used “offensively” to spread ransomware and other malwares or to attack websites using DDOS attacks. Perhaps here, children can draw lessons from their favorite superhero and decide to use power appropriately and ideally for good intentions.
- Responsibility: A laptop with an internet connection provides a lot of power to an individual. It can be used for great projects or malice. As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is a foundational concept—a philosophy—we all strive to be responsible citizens, adults, parents etc. I suppose the goal is to teach children to consider the options they have in any given situation. Encourage them to ask questions to more fully understand the consequences of their actions and the identities of those with whom they interact. It’s important to remind them not to be so trusting as people are not always who they appear to be online.
Interestingly, in most states in the US, teenagers have to take driver’s education often either privately or at school as they learn how to drive. They practice driving many hours with adults before they take an exam. With technology, we just hand it over. Increasingly, at a younger age. Food for thought.