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Cyber 101: Basic Rules for Connected Kids

Editor’s Note:

The Center For Missing and Exploited Children maintains a website that offers advice for helping kids learn about online safety. In addition to the advice in this article, we recommend you visit Basic Internet Safety to get more information and learn how to talk with your kids about keeping safe in a connected world.

Today’s reader question:

“I’ve got kids, one in grammar school and one in high school.  What can I do to keep them safe online at home at everywhere else?”

Keeping kids safe is always a top issue we hear about in Cybersecurity.  Small and large companies are concerned because some of what they do could be used by kids, and because many employees have kids of their own.  Parents are concerned that their children may be stepping outside of boundaries due to natural tendencies to push limits during childhood and just due to overall ignorance of the dangers.  The most common question in a world where young people are often much more connected than their parents and guardians is “Where do we even start?”

Start with the basics.  There are rules you can put in place and knowledge you can pass on that can help keep kids safe online, on mobile devices, and everywhere else when it comes to technology.  Let’s take a look at some of the top things to talk about:

First, the elephant in the room.  Social media and sharing has become how kids communicate. Text messaging has replaced phone conversations.  Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other services have replaced the bulletin board and locker-side chats. Kids are indeed more connected with more people than the previous generation was, but that’s not to say this interconnectivity is a bad thing at all. More people can share more ideas and further better social and scientific changes faster than ever.  As long as kids realize the potential dangers, they can avoid them, and use these wonderful social tools to make the world a better place for themselves and their friends.

The biggest issue these tools create is – since they’re not talking to another person or group of people face-to-face – the tendency is to overshare information that might not be suitable for public consumption.  I’ve always lived by one rule: “If you wouldn’t tell your Grandmother (or insert your own conservative authority figure here) or shout it at the top of your lungs in Times Square (or insert your own massively crowded public space), then don’t post it or text it.” Everything that’s posted, tweeted, texted, or shared becomes public; even if you have your privacy settings up to date.  Eventually, the likelihood that this information will get released to a much wider audience by accident or on purpose becomes a sure thing over time.  So, if you wouldn’t tell everyone – or if it’s something you wouldn’t be comfortable your parents and grandparents seeing – don’t text, post, or share it with anyone online. There are, indeed, some things that are better and safer face-to-face.

Second, always remember that networks are connected by nature. The school and coffee-shop’s WiFi is used by dozens if not hundreds of people at the same time, and they can see what you’re doing if they’ve got the right tools to do so. Teach your kids that where they go, the sites the visit, and what they do online can be seen by others. This could mean the school administrations, or could mean random strangers, or could mean their own friends who are experimenting with information security and hacking.  Kids should refrain from visiting sites or viewing information that they wouldn’t want everyone to know about until they’re at home. Not only will this help keep them safer, but it may just foster some frank communication on topics that you will want to talk to them about.

Next, remember that free is never actually free. What you don’t pay for with money is paid for with personal information. That means that free game or app will harvest data about where they live, when they play, what they’re doing while playing, their name, address, phone number, and a lot of other data. Let kids know just how much data can be found out about them by a free app, and teach them that this data has definite value to companies and advertisers. This is also a great time to teach kids about tricky sales tactics that might try to get them to spend money in games and apps to progress or unlock features. 

Teach them about phishing emails, vishing, and spam. Let them know that people will try to get them to reveal usernames, passwords, and other secret info by email and by phone.  Forewarned is forearmed in these cases, as kids are more susceptible to things like extortion emails and urgent phishing attempts. Vishing (phishing via phone call) is even more of a concern, as kids can be tricked into thinking that the caller is a person of authority (police, school officials, etc.) with fewer ways to confirm they are who they say they are. Teaching kids how to spot these attacks can help them avoid falling for them; and prepare them for later in life at the same time.

Finally, go over the rules about what they should tell people they don’t know.  While the concept of “Stranger Danger” may be overrated (the jury is still out on that one), there are most definitely people online who would like to take advantage of others, including kids. Sometimes that’s for the purpose of stealing from them, sometimes it is for far more dangerous goals.  Teaching kids that their personal information should remain personal at all times is a vital lesson – as is defining what data you believe they should consider personal. Remember that kids might not consider some things – like their home address – as “private information.” No one they do not know in the real and physical world should ever be asking them for their phone number or home address, their birth date, their social security number or any other sensitive info. Likewise, those people don’t need to know what school they go to, or what their schedule is.  Rule of thumb: that information should only be given to people who know them and also know you as their parent or guardian.

Kids will be kids, and will push boundaries and test the waters. While you can’t stop them from doing absolutely everything that could be embarrassing or dangerous, you can start to teach them about the impact of those actions. You can set limits, and make those limits realistic and workable; you can teach, inform, and show by example how to safely use technology while still having fun. This will keep them safer in the here and now, but also for the rest of their lives as technology continues to be, and continues to become more, intertwined in daily life.

Today’s dose of Alphabet Soup: NCJRS – the National Criminal Justice Reference Service – which keeps a library of government press releases and documentation revolving around the Justice Department and various other US Government agencies. They have an entire library about online safety for kids: Special Feature: Internet Safety – Online Safety for Youth | NCJRS.