Virtual safety: How to teach your kids cybersecurity best practices

Confession: I am a security practitioner. I am also a mom. What I am not is a homeschool teacher.


Earlier this year, I spoke to the 5th- and 6th-grade classes at my son’s Innovation Day about cybersecurity. I discussed what it means to be a cybersecurity practitioner and how the practice of cybersecurity affects everyday life. We’ll never know how many of those kids will train to become security professionals later in life, but I do know that at the end of the day they understood the concepts I spoke on, and some of them were eager to implement them.

For me, it was a powerful lesson. Adults may be resistant to change but kids — especially school-age kids — are in active training. Knowing that, shouldn’t we be training them to take security seriously? Shouldn’t we be teaching our kids best practices now when they have the best chance of forming habits? All too often, this isn’t happening.

The global pandemic and resulting closures of businesses and schools have been an adjustment for all of us. Our kids are now adjusting to online learning, and this begs an important question for not only the current circumstances, but the future as well — how do we empower our children to protect themselves online?

Here are some ideas that you can work on with your kids to keep them safe online, right now:

Teach them to break things

Kids love to build things, and often do this naturally. Instead of teaching them to build, why not teach them how to break things? Teach them to see flaws in design. This will help them to understand vulnerabilities with smartphones and devices. One of the most common vulnerabilities is unintentional data leakage through the use of mobile apps. Teach them about phishing if they use email, and more importantly, teach them about smishing. Smishing is launched through text messages instead of email. Like phishing scams, cyber miscreants attempt to trick people into downloading malware, clicking on malicious links, or disclosing sensitive information. Teach them how to address these types of weaknesses so they can be less vulnerable to cyber attackers as they grow up in a digital world.

Teach them to ask questions

According to Harvard-based child psychologist Paul Harris, a child asks around 40,000 questions between the ages of two and five. So you may be asking, “why would I want to teach my child to ask even more questions?” Instead of urging them to ask more questions, let’s teach them to ask the right questions. For example, why is a flashlight app asking for access to your calendar? The more your kids learn to ask why, the more cautious they'll be on the Internet and as they grow into adults.


Cami Lewis with her kids Isaiah and Malakye.

Teach them to confirm

A 6th-grade student at the Innovation Day I spoke at admitted that he and his classmates like to create fake personas on Facebook. Chances are that plenty of cyber creeps are doing this too. Teach your kids to be cautious of all online personas and not to exchange information with anyone whose identity seems fishy. Also, teach them to tell a trusted adult whenever something feels awkward or strange.

Teach them prevention

Our dog likes to steal and hide toys. We've had enough incidents with this behavior that my son now puts his toys away right after using them so that they’re out of the dog’s reach. We should teach our children to think of cyber criminals in the same way. If your kids put their personal information within reach, it's much more likely to be stolen by a wrongdoer. Instead, ensure your kids know what information is safe to share, and encourage them to change their passwords regularly and encrypt their devices.

A child’s identity is extremely attractive to cyber thieves. Their credit history represents a clean slate that will remain untouched — and potentially unchecked — for years. Many parents don’t realize their child’s identity could be compromised at school by filling out school forms without thinking about how the information will be stored or who may have access to it. Be vigilant in protecting your child’s personal information. Find out if your child has a credit report, and if for some reason they do, freeze their credit. Be proactive if you notice red flags. As kids spend more time on connected devices, make sure your children aren’t sharing personal information and teach your kids about what information is safe to share.

Teach them about defense

Plenty of kids have smartphones with location-based services. Combine that with social networks that encourage users to tell friends and followers where they are and you have a real-world problem. Just like you would teach your kids defensive driving, teach your kids not to share their location on social media. Or, better yet, turn off their location-based services for them.

Teach them about privacy

Hackers and fraudsters are increasingly targeting children. I was appalled to hear a recent story trending across major news networks about a hacker accessing the camera inside a little girl’s room. Teach your kids about how unsafe people exploit smart speakers. Any time you introduce a new technology into your home, guiding your kids on how to use it and what the expectations are will empower them to use it safely when you’re not around. Even better, don’t allow devices in your home that you can’t ensure are safe for your family.

Teach them about technology

Teaching cybersecurity skills to kids while they are still young is important. Your kids live in a computer-driven world. and kids who acquire these skills early learn to be critical thinkers and process information in an analytical way.

Set up a cluster and let them play around. Introduce them to SIEM and show them some features. Kids can soak up basic cybersecurity skills as rapidly as they pick up new technologies. With those easy-to-acquire skills, they can be equipped to protect themselves from cyber threats automatically. We owe it to them to make this possible.

Remember, no amount of preparation will deter every cyber creep. But as my son learned with our toy-snatching dog, good habits go a long way.

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