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Raising A Cyber-Savvy Generation

When I was a kid... I don't probably need to go any further, but you might have heard a dial-tone when you went online. The biggest security threat on that shared family computer was that someone would delete the check register spreadsheet. I can still remember a computer science professor telling the class that we were the first generation of kids that had computers at home. I can still remember my first employees who grew up with internet access as kids. Now I'm braced for employees who grew up always connected to social media.

Computing is now ubiquitous - and kids navigate the digital world as effortlessly as they breathe, constantly connected to friends, information, and entertainment. But are they equipped with the knowledge and skills to navigate this digital landscape safely and responsibly? Do they realize that bits of their digital trails may persist in ways that their grandchildren will see what they've said and done online? Do they understand what the consequences of giving access to their accounts to their friends might be? Do they know that some things they get online could damage their devices? The answer to all of these is that they only know what they're told, or what they learn the hard way.

The Urgency of Cybersecurity Education

The kiddos need to be online now, though. They do school work there. They don't call each other on the home phone and tie up the line - now they use an online service to video chat. They coordinate when they need to get picked up in real time, and where. We see their pin on a map so know they're safe. In short, they don't just want to be online - they need to be.

While the internet can be a powerful tool for learning and connection, it also harbors dangers like cyberbullying, scams, and online predators. Parents want to wrap our arms around them and keep them safe. But we can't watch every interaction they have with the larger world. With many schools and activities still operating virtually, it's crucial for parents to actively engage in their children's digital lives and foster healthy cybersecurity habits. Trust, but verify.

Instill Confidence, Not Fear

The world is a scary place, but since the dawn of time parents have given their children increasing amounts of freedom to explore that world as they grow more responsible. Children earn the ability to cross the street by proving they'll look both ways. They earn the ability to brush their own hair when they prove they can get all the tangles out. They earn the ability to get a car by getting a drivers license. Some of these are quantifiable - others you just kinda' know.

If we scare them, they're less likely to pursue their own freedoms. Instead of portraying the internet as a scary place, it's important to empower children with knowledge. When it comes to the internet, this comes down to a few basic places where we can talk about things in ways that are positive, rather than leading with fear.

Password Security

My kid gave the password for their Snapchat to friends so they could keep their streaks alive while they were at camp. I'm pretty sure the whole friend group had their PIN number to unlock the phone. The whole group was talking about the fact that they all just use the password the school gave them when they started for most of their other services - which means that they're all using that for their social media accounts, so sharing access to everything. Of course, not with parents!

Adults wouldn't share ATM PINs, but kids are happy to let their friends unlock their phone, which has Apple Pay and Google Pay tied to it? Ugh. Stress the importance of keeping passwords secret to the kids. Explain what all is tethered to those. Also teach strong password creation techniques, like letting the password manager automatically generate passwords, and consider using a shared password manager like Secret Chest for the family, especially when they'll need passwords for streaming services and other shared secrets.

Don't Just Download Anything

That PDF of a coloring book page or a school assignment is safe. That executable is not. Teaching kids the difference between files they can and should open and files they should avoid is less of a concern on an iPhone or a Mac than other systems that allow users to open any old file, because the operating systems put controls in place that help to prevent inappopriate activity. However, it's still possible - so teaching kids not to open potentially infected files is a good idea.

It's probably also a good idea to supervise App downloads and utilize parental controls available on iOS and Android devices. Not only does this keep potentially addictive behaviors, like in-app purchases at bay, but also gives parents a little insight into what's happening on devices.

Information Permanence

No one wants to think of their kid as a bully, racist, homophobe, or anything else where a comment they might not even understand can lead to a label. Remind children that anything shared online, even in "private" spaces, can potentially be found and shared. Encourage thoughtful sharing and responsible social media practices. But also, keep in mind that as they get older, kids can get curious about things like their changing bodies. So while uncomfortable, have the talk about not sharing photos of bodies as well (and having informed consent before sharing photos of others).

Utilizing Resources

School, library, or camp resources often come with acceptable use policies, if not outright restrictions. Make sure kids understand what types of resourcing and/or services they are allowed to access on devices and networks that your family doesn't own.

Those places are also a great spot to get programs regarding digital literacy. Ask the school if they offer such training and encourage them to prioritize such initiatives and consider utilizing resources like Common Sense Media for additional education.

Critical Thinking

Children can struggle to distinguish between real, sponsored, and fake content online. My kid has told me about some article and I'm like "nooooooo" because there's no way it's true. Or they believe an ad, obviously poorly written to get them to buy some miracle thing online. A dose of healthy skepticism and critical thinking goes a long way. It's hard to teach nuance, but the earlier we try, the better.

Be Careful About Networks

The kids love to go to coffee shops and do things on public Wi-Fi networks that can leak credentials. This is less of a concern than it used to be given how secure most of our credentials are when they're in transit, but still good to talk about so children can make good choices.

One aspect of using public networks is to teach children about secure Wi-Fi networks, like how to identify those with WPA or WPA2 encryption and if those necessary, what types of data to put on them - or even when a VPN or another tool might be a good idea.

Lead by Example

Children learn by observing. Model responsible digital behavior by prioritizing physical interaction, showcasing healthy skepticism online, and safeguarding your own devices.

Remember, raising a cyber-savvy generation is a collaborative effort. By actively engaging with children, providing them with tools and knowledge, and setting a positive example, we can empower them to navigate the digital world with confidence and responsibility. Just like we want to do with the physical world.

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