Those of us who “came of age with the internet” had the luxury of testing the digital waters slowly — waiting for the dial-up modem to screech to life once or twice a week and slowly tapping out one-line T9 text messages. Technology played a relatively minor role in those quaint, formative years. But fast-forward a few (cough) decades, and most kids have mastered the touchscreen before their second birthday. But have they mastered cybersecurity basics as readily?
The internet touches virtually every aspect of modern life, simultaneously reflecting the best and worst parts of humanity. Helping kids navigate the digital world safely is a thorny challenge for many parents and caregivers today. In fact, a recent Google survey found that two in five parents don’t feel confident talking about tech-related topics with their kids, such as screen time, digital wellbeing and discovering quality apps, games and activities.
In the spirit of encouraging more frequent, candid conversations about responsible technology use, we went straight to the source. Some of what we heard from these digital natives buoyed our cybersecure-spirits, while other statements were somewhat alarming (albeit age appropriate).
Here’s what we learned about cybersecurity awareness and online habits in speaking with kids aged two to 16 (note: some names have been changed to protect privacy):
Turns out that passwords can be a pain for everyone — regardless of age. Some of the kids we spoke to admitted to risky password practices that, if not addressed, could potentially become bigger problems down the line.
What are passwords used for?
“You use them to call your friends’ parents to ask for a playdate.” – Jack, 5
“Passwords stop people from sneaking on your phone.” – Finn, 8
What makes a strong password?
“Capital and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters. You shouldn’t use obvious personal info such as your name.” – Ben, 13
How do you remember your passwords?
“I’m just always going to use my mom’s password for everything, so I don’t forget it (proceeds to share it with everyone in the room).” – Lucas, 10
“My e-mail password has never been changed since I first made my account.” – Tim, 13
“I usually remember all my passwords because they are pretty similar to each other. I have two passwords that I use and have slight variations to each of them.” – Maya, 16
Some kids have taken common-sense precautions, such as enabling multi-factor biometric authentication, recognizing that passwords are not enough to protect key accounts like email, banking and social media.
“My phone is locked, and I can use a six-digit passcode or my Face ID to unlock it.” – Ben, 13
“I have a locked note in the notes app where I write all of my passwords.” – Jordan, 15
We asked kids about their family technology rules, potential cyber risks and making smart choices online.
When are you allowed to use your tablet?
“On the couch.” – Paige, 2
“When my mom says it’s okay.” – Jack, 5
How do you make sure a website is safe before using it?
“I usually look at the ending of the website title. For example, if the website ends in .org or .com, I usually assume that the website will be safe. In addition, I usually stick to the websites that appear at the top when I search for something, because those are the most commonly visited by other people.” – Maya, 16
Are you concerned that your online accounts could be compromised?
“I know it is definitely a possibility because I know lots of kids my age who’ve been hacked. But I know if I stay careful on the internet and learn from other people’s mistakes, I can likely stay safe on the internet.” – Tim, 13
“Sometimes I am concerned about my Instagram being hacked, so I change the password very often — around once a month. I am worried about this because I know many people who have had their accounts hacked before.” – Jordan, 15
Have you or someone in your family ever been scammed?
“I have been hacked twice. The first time I was hacked was when someone sent me a link and it asked me to put my Instagram username and password in to access the link. Because I was in middle school, I didn’t really think much of it. I ended up being hacked, and my account sent over 100 DMs to people. The second time I got hacked was recently, through my bank account. I’m still not sure how it happened, but someone got access to my online bank account and took the most of my money out. In both of these cases, I changed my passwords to be more complex. Additionally, for the bank situation I spent a lot of time talking to people on the phone, and I had to get a new debit card. I think from these situations I have learned to be extra cautious on the internet and have made sure not to give my passwords to any website that may be untrustworthy.” – Maya, 16
Children of all ages want to participate in the digital world. In their own words, the best part of the internet is…
“Minecraft!” – Colton, 9
“How quickly you can obtain information with a quick search, and oftentimes that information can be helpful for a project, directions to a location or just pure curiosity.” – Ben, 13
“That you have access to a variety of things, people and ideas. The internet is such a big place, and it allows you to learn about the people and the world around you.” – Becca, 15
They also understand some of the potential risks, such as:
“Malware, which is something that can damage your computer.” – Lucas, 10
“The people who try to trick you to receive your information and passwords.” – Jordan, 15
“Cyber bullying.” – Lucy, 11
“The danger of being stalked by someone or having your location tracked or someone stealing your identity.” – Ben, 13
“I think that it is very easy to come across bad people or things on the internet.” – Becca, 15
Home is a great place to start building lifelong cyber safety skills — from keeping devices updated and “clean,” to protecting personal information, to being cautious about sharing information on social media. Yet Google’s survey found that one in four parents has not proactively spoken to their kids about online safety over the past year.
It can be challenging to know where to start but fortunately, there are some great resources available to help get the conversation about online safety going. Here are just a few of our favorites:
A Platform for Good: Teaching Effective Security Habits at Home
Common Sense Media: Cyberbullying Resources for Parents
Family Online Safety Institute: Digital Parenting Resources
Federal Trade Commission: OnGuardOnline
Internetmatters.org: Helping Parents Keep Their Kids Safe Online
National Cybersecurity Alliance: Stay Safe Online Resource Library
U.S. Department of Justice: Keeping Children Safe Online
UNICEF: Growing Up in a Connected World