The Internet plays an integral part in a child’s life at home, in schools, libraries and wherever they spend their free time. Though computers and mobile devices that connect to the Internet can be beneficial for learning, enhance social relations and keep young users connected to their loved ones, they can also be a source of danger and concern for parents. Children are now discovering computers, smartphones or tablets at an early age; as they develop and discover new experiences, it is important to protect them from everyday dangers of inappropriate contact, conduct, and content that they may encounter while online.
So, what’s the right age to introduce security awareness? It is whenever the child starts spending time online even if supervised. An interesting survey by EU Kids online, shows how, in 2014, European minors 11 to 16- year-old were more likely to be exposed to hate messages (from 13% to 20%), self-harm sites (from 7% to 11%) and cyberbullying (from 7% to 12%) than in 2010. Therefore, it is important to begin instilling safer browsing habits much earlier. Of course, the message and the medium by which it is communicated need to be tailored according to the age of the child, but awareness principles should be conveyed early so as they can become second nature. The first educators are necessarily parents or guardians; they are normally the first people to introduce children to the online world and are responsible for addressing with them good online navigation and behavioral habits. Armed with much material now available, adults can help children build resilience against a variety of cyber risks at an early age.
Internet Dangers Kids Need to Be Aware Of
According to the Child Development Institute, there are five reasons why internet use can be dangerous for children and teenagers:
- False Identities. It is difficult for anyone to verify the real identity of people met online; even more so for children and teenagers who are normally more willing to trust the other person. Unfortunately, it is very easy to create an online identity that is very different from the real one.
- Internet Predators. A false identity can be the means for predators to meet and befriend children. These adults often lie about their age, appearance, and life to meet and eventually capture minors in their net.
- Endless sites to visit. The beauty of the Internet is the availability of an endless amount of information, videos and knowledge-sharing. Unfortunately, this is also a danger for children that could, even inadvertently, get access to inappropriate content.
- Privacy or lack of. While online, people of all ages, and children more so, have a false sense of privacy. Much of what is posted on social networks is available to a larger number of people than a user expects and, in many cases, to anyone. Kids can also be a target of phishers due to oversharing personal information on social media and trusting Internet “friends.”
- They Are in Control. No matter how many recommendations adults give their children, they are ultimately in control of their browsing and communications.
In addition to these dangers, younger children and adolescents are also more prone to cyberbullying (a form of harassment through the use of technology, a danger for which they are normally not emotionally prepared for in an online context where they normally feel secure), sexual harassment, scams, phishing or other forms of exploitation, including child pornography.
How to Keep Kids Safe Online?
“Kids ages 8-18 spend 7 hours and 38 minutes per day online,” a National Cyber Security Alliance study reveals; therefore, learning to manage the child’s online experience, hence, is of paramount importance. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) stresses the importance that adults assume in helping youths know how to navigate these spaces safely. Since the Internet can be used as a tool to manipulate and exploit younger users, parents ought to be wary about allowing them access to certain social media sites at a young age, and need to keep informed on where their children browse and what are the latest trends online. (See Children’s Internet Usage Study.) Parents and educators need to be active role models and establish an open dialogue with children to ensure a positive experience.
The first thing is for parents to pay more attention to their children’s use of the Internet. The findings from the Children’s Internet Usage Study by Booz Allen Hamilton, released by the Center for Cyber Safety and Education, shows how parents are not necessarily aware of how much time their kids are spending online and which sites they visit. In particular, the study shows how
- 40 percent of kids surveyed said they connected with or chatted online with a stranger.
- 21 percent took the relationship a step further and spoke to a stranger by phone.
- 15 percent tried to meet with a stranger they first encountered online.
- 11 percent met a stranger in their home, the stranger’s home, a park, mall or restaurant — often accompanied by a friend.
- 30 percent reported texting a stranger from their phone.
- 25 percent revealed their phone numbers to a stranger.
- 6 percent revealed their home addresses.
- 53 percent of kids who participated in the survey access the Internet for reasons other than homework seven days a week.
- 49 percent have been online at 11 p.m. or later on a school night.
- 33 percent have been online at midnight or later.
Parents can use anti-malware software and ad-blockers or apply filters to deny access to objectionable content as well as set up parental controls across all the main devices and websites. However, safety features provided by Internet service providers and parental controls as well as safety and privacy settings can only partially help and only with younger users. Older children can easily bypass security measures in place, even unintentionally; in addition, the use of Internet by children is becoming more diverse in terms of how (PCs, tablets, smartphones, Internet kiosks) and where (home, schools, libraries, eateries, streets through mobile Wi-Fi connections, etc.) they access the online world. Therefore parents need to concentrate more on guidance and lead their children in approaching the Internet in a critical way. Critical thinking and healthy behaviors, more than any notional information or safety measure, will assist children as they grow and become more and more exposed to more subtle threats.
What are the basic information children need to learn? From a very young age, they can be taught basic computer security practices, such as to avoid unsecured Wi-Fi, use unique, safe and secure passwords and not share PII on insecure websites, along with knowing when it is safe to download files. Also, many safe behaviors online can mirror those that parents are already teaching in everyday life. Children should be encouraged to share with their family if strangers contact them through any means (chat, e-mail message, post); they should be taught not to release personal information (and what this personal information are) or join groups without a preliminary permission by their parents. Treating the online world as an extension of their everyday life environment can help children maintain a consistent safety posture across all aspects of their life.
A number of organizations are now recognizing the pivotal importance of starting security awareness training early on and provide material that can aid parents and educators in their effort.
The Stop.Think.Connect. Parent and Educator Resources, for example, provide material to start the discussion with kids or students about Internet safety. NetSmartz Workshop, instead, is an interactive educational program of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) that provides age-appropriate educational safety sources for children ages 5 to 17. The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) also concentrates on the role of parents as ‘Safety Net for the Internet.’ FOSI created the “How to Be a Good Digital Parent” program to help them provide children with guidance on navigating the Internet. The organization supports the collaboration between parents and their kids to keep the entire family safe and goes as far as proposing a model contract that allows freedom for the younger to browse and for parents the means to exercise the necessary supervision. The scope is to create accountability and shared responsibility; involving children from a young age in a communal family effort for safety reinforces the message and communicates its importance.
The safesurfingkids.com website as the name suggests provides ‘awareness, safety, and knowledge’ for Safe Surfing; it is a site that features safety tips for both kids and parents.
A “Safe Surfing Kid’s Parent” Internet safety quiz is available to make fathers, mothers, and guardians aware of whether they are on the right track to keep their kids safe on the Internet.
Protecting Children Online: The School’s Role
Although there is no substitute for parental guidance that must be provided for a child’s online experience, educators are another very important component in creating healthier behaviors online in new generations. As technology is now becoming an integral part of the students’ experience in classrooms in the form of computers, tablet, e-book readers and apps, it is also the education system responsibility to help in forming the new digital citizens with ad-hoc programs. Security awareness needs to become an integral part of the curriculum with activities that are engaging enough to capture the attention of young students. By making it fun, children are bound to learn and retain the concepts and techniques presented to them, explains the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. The organization’ Safe and Secure Online educational programs introduce cyber-safety education curricula into schools that teach how to become more responsible users with Internet-connected devices. (StaySafeOnline.org offers tips and advice about raising good digital citizens.) A Garfield’s Cyber Safety Adventures for Kids is also available and features educator kits and packets.
It would be great if every school were given the possibility to afford specialized cyber awareness trainers, but this is not always possible, unfortunately. There are, however, organizations that offer material that educators can use to carry on this vital task.
Schools, for example, can participate in the Kids Safe Online Poster Contest ran by the Center for Internet Security (CIS) through its Multi-State Information Sharing and Analysis Center (MS-ISAC) unit that engages youth in creating messages and images to communicate to their peers the importance of staying safe online. Participating schools may submit entries to the MS-ISAC National Contest website. The deadline for 2017 has passed in January, but educators that want to get involved next year can go to the MS-ISAC site that provides the contest rules and entry forms, in addition to the judging criteria for posters. The contest—open to all public, private or home-schooled students in kindergarten through twelfth grade in the 50 United States, including U.S. Schools and Military Installations in foreign nations—recognizes hands-on activities to comprehend, measure and respond to cyber risk challenges. The academic research posters have proved over and over to be an effective educational element to raise the Internet and cyber security awareness among children of all ages.
Relying simply on parental control software and close supervision can help children avoid many issues while they are young, but do nothing to instill that culture of safety that will prevent issues later on in their life when technology aids and supervision will no longer be effective. Security Awareness for Kids helps them ‘Be Safe and Smart’ on the Internet, maintain personal safety and be aware of their responsibility for their own security. Such training early in life can create behavior changes that allow future teens and adults assume safer Internet habits. More resilient children will be armed early in life with the skills and knowledge that will make the difference in their future work and digital lifestyle.
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