Internet-connected computers and mobile-devices are becoming the main way for youths of any ages to learn, play games, socialize, network, communicate, collaborate or share resources. Nowadays, thanks to mobile connections, hotspots and widespread wireless ADSL connections at home, school and offices, they can do that at ease from anywhere they are. As the age of users of Internet-connected devices is lowering more and more, concerns are rising on the security implication of having pre-teens or even younger children tap into resources and being exposed to the security and privacy risks related to the use of the Internet or sharing of sensitive information online.

The Internet itself is not a secure environment. And so beginner users (at home and school) ought to be fully aware of the dangers, of issues related to data privacy and security, and of how to protect themselves before downloading or installing software or doing anything that could possibly hurt them in the end.

The younger the user, the more careless he or she might be when using mobile devices or Internet connections. Teenagers and younger users today are very well versed in all the technicalities related to Internet-connected devices but are normally very free in sharing information over the Internet, tapping into public hotspots or not properly securing their devices.

Therefore, discussions have been started on how early should children be introduced to the all-important notion of cybersecurity and when teaching security awareness is actually beneficial. What is the right age to introduce tips and knowledge to help today’s internet savvy young children to “stay safe online?”

Kids online: How young is too young?

A presentation for children prepared by Homeland Security on the National Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign, reveals that “kids ages 8-18 spend 7 hours and 38 minutes per day online; if a child sleeps 8 hours per night, that means one half of the time he or she is awake is spent online.” The Stop.Think Connect. campaign specifically recognizes the fact that, in this digital age, children are now discovering computers, smartphones or tablets at an early age. As they develop and discover new experiences online, learning through exploration and natural curiosity, parents’ supervision and parental control tools might be beneficial. However, there is only so much all these tools can prevent; more is needed to protect children from the everyday dangers of inappropriate contacts as well as to prevent them from being the easy target of malicious hackers infiltrating systems and accessing information.

The reality is that nowadays even pre-K students are exposed to computers and their use for education and games. In addition, more and more pre-teens are using social networking sites. Whether or not kids should be given access to the internet at a young age is a debatable issue; however, a growing number of children are found today connected, mobile and social by the age of 13. Kids of all ages are part of the technology-driven generation taking the “high-tech way to connect with the wider world around them, communicating with friends and hooking up with like-minded people,” as mentioned in a post from Netmums Ltd.

When is a good time to start effective security awareness? Although some might think that teaching cyber security awareness to younger children could be ineffective or might even be counterproductive, the best time to begin discussing cyber safety is as soon as children begin using technology; in this way, computer knowledge and security awareness will be seen as an inseparable duo from the very beginning. The first awareness training is that given by parents who, to keep kids safe online, must teach them to be resilient digital citizens early on. They will be the first to open the conversation and teach children about the 3Cs online—appropriate contact, content and conduct.

Organizations like Savvy Cyber Kids, Inc.in Georgia have concentrated on specific programs for pre-school and pre-K children, and material is now available for parents from renowned organizations, like The SANS Institute, that have recognized the importance to introduce digital safety training as early as normal security practices are taught.

In a specific handout on Kids’ security online, The SANS Institute identifies three of the main risks for cyber-connected children.

  • Strangers / Criminals: This first threat is obvious. Unattended children online, as in physical settings, are vulnerable prays for individuals who could gain their trust in order to have access to data, pictures, family information.
  • Friends: Cyber bullying is a real possibility and often more damaging and aggressive than real bullying in schools and neighborhoods. Bullies use the virtual shield to perpetrate their attacks without been publicly seen. According to Jessica Elgot, a reporter for The Guardian, in a “global YouGov survey of more than 4,700 teenagers from across the world, a fifth of those who had experienced cyberbullying said it had made them consider suicide, and more than half said being taunted online was worse than being bullied in person.”
  • Themselves: This one is the most subtle of the problems. Children, sometimes, can feel a false sense of security when chatting with their friends and sharing information in their groups. Sometimes, they don’t realize that what they are posting is publicly-shared and virtually available forever: what they say, show or comment on could affect their present but also their future relationships.

To help youths learn to be more thoughtful and responsible technology users, it is important to encourage them from the very beginning to practice good online navigation habits. It is imperative for parents to discuss with their children about their Internet use; identify which websites are okay to visit; and what kind of information is acceptable and what is not to share online, as mentioned on the ‘Stop.Think.Connect’ Parent and Educator Resources’ webpage. Setting appropriate “rules” for online use about posting content, pictures, etc. is important as well as place limits to use of social networks and, especially, chat rooms. It is also essential to encourage healthy browsing behaviors and open communications for any concerns without fear of reprimand.

The Stop.Think.Connect. Toolkit and many organizations provide materials for different audiences and can help teaching any learner about safe cyber behavior. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) in relation to Children and Social Networking has programs to help provide guidance for parents to get more involved in their child’s social life in attempt to identify early on inappropriate behaviors while using sites.

The Stay Safe Online (StaySafeOnline.org) powered by the National Cyber Security Alliance, also shares tips and resources that can be used by parents to teach their children to become good digital citizens. In addition, OnGuardOnline.gov is another federal government website to help them also to be safe, secure and responsible online through information on its webpage on how to Protect Kids Online.

For younger children, parental safety tools can be deployed. Many free options are available, and most Internet Service Providers often offer protection tools. Windows Live Family Safety, for example, is a free content-control software that can block or allow websites users visit using the web filtering/blocking controls via the web interface filtering settings and parameters. Microsoft Family Safety is appropriate to keep tabs on childrens’ computer activities and to ensure they stay safer online. Once the user account and safety settings are in place and the required setup of different rating levels, restrictions and privileges for the child is done, all that remains for the parent is to establish some firm ground rules with the youth about his or her internet use or online behavior.

Parents need also to lead by example; this is especially important for younger and pre-teenage children. According to a research by FOSI (Family Online Safety Institute), “parents said maintaining the privacy of their child’s personal information was one of their top worries.” In fact, 36% of surveyed parents reported using a parental control tool, to help limit or monitor their child’s Internet use; most parents have rules about what online accounts their child can have and what they can post. However, surprisingly, 19% of parents admitted posting something that might embarrass their child in the future on social networks, and 10% was actually asked by their child to remove something they posted.

While proactive parenting can help, schools and teachers are also main stakeholders in the shaping of cybersecurity-aware children. Internet safety awareness sessions are run in schools to help reinforce important lessons about socializing safely (amongst other things) in making sure kids get the best out of their online experience. Sessions should be offered to younger children too in order to make sure cyber awareness, like normal crime awareness, becomes second-nature for children before bad habits and typical pre-teens carelessness sets in.

In this digital age, cyber safety lessons ought to be mandatory in schools, as well as in homes, because cyber communication, browsing and interacting online is, in fact, a part of a child’s everyday life.

The Department of Homeland Security Stop.Think.Connect. site encourages every user to be cyber-safe in their everyday activities on the Internet. And yet “[the campaign] reminds Americans that cybersecurity is a shared responsibility – at home, at school, and in our communities.”

There is no denying there are advantages to being educated at a young age about cybersecurity and more middle and high school teachers across the country have included aspects of it in project-driven, application-based curricula to teach important cyber concepts and fundamentals. One such place with a cybersecurity curricula is at the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center (NICERC) where early learners become aware of cyber issues and understand how certain behaviors online can put them at risk of theft, fraud, and abuse. Children should be getting an education in computer security as soon as they have access to IT tools; that is the only way to ensure they grow to be savvy digital citizens.

Conclusion

Children today are growing up in an increasingly complex and potentially dangerous digital world. In an increasingly electronic and global digital society, we all have the responsibility to use and protect personal and shared resources wisely. It is important that also children are armed with the necessary cyber security preparedness to avoid online threats or harm. Adults, from family members to school personnel, should make it a point to talk with youths about whom they engage with online and encourage them to limit their personal information sharing.

Kids start using computers and mobile devices at a very early age. While parents can help keep kids safe at home on the Internet, teachers can do that through programs that promote students’ safety. Both are able to make a positive difference in safeguarding the lives of our next generations.

No age is too early to begin learning about cyber awareness. As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security states in its campaign pamphlet on cyber security, “Every Internet user, no matter how young or old, is our Nation’s first line of defense against people who might want to do harm.”

References

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (2011, September). Facts for Families Guide – Children and Social Networking. Retrieved from http://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-and-Social-Networking-100.aspx

Elgot, J. (2015, September 22). One in five young people has suffered online abuse, study finds. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/sep/22/cyberbullying-teenagers-worse-than-drug-abuse-says-report

Get Safe Online. (n.d.). Safeguarding Children. Retrieved from https://www.getsafeonline.org/safeguarding-children/

Hanley, J. (2015, November 17). Parents, Privacy & Technology Use – Latest FOSI Research Findings. Retrieved from https://www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting/parents-privacy-technology-research-findings/

Internet Society. (n.d.). Children and the Internet. Retrieved from http://www.internetsociety.org/sites/default/files/bp-childrenandtheinternet-20129017-en.pdf

Luttrell, S. K. (n.d.). What Is Your School’s Internet Policy? Retrieved from http://www.schoolfamily.com/school-family-articles/article/10646-what-is-your-schools-internet-policy

Netmums Ltd. (n.d.). Your children & the internet: social networking sites. Retrieved from http://www.netmums.com/teenagers/safe-surfing-on-the-internet/your-children-and-the-internet-social-networking-s

OnGuardOnline. (n.d.). Protect Kids Online. Retrieved from https://www.onguardonline.gov/topics/protect-kids-online

StaySafeOnline. (n.d.). Raising Digital Citizens. Retrieved from https://www.staysafeonline.org/stay-safe-online/for-parents/raising-digital-citizens

The SANS Institute. (n.d.). SANS Securing Your Kids Handout. Retrieved from http://www.securingthehuman.org/media/resources/presentations/SANS-SecuringTheKids-ParentHandout.pdf

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (n.d.). Stop.Think.Connect. National Cybersecurity Awareness Campaign – Kids Presentation. Retrieved from https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Kids%20Presentation.pdf

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (n.d.). Stop.Think.Connect. Parent and Educator Resources. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/publication/stopthinkconnect-parent-and-educator-resources

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (n.d.). Stop.Think.Connect. Toolkit. Retrieved from http://www.dhs.gov/stopthinkconnect-toolkit