Keeping children off the Internet is not a realistic option anymore. Not only has digital become part and parcel of life, it will also be an integral part of the future world of work. However, the online world can also be a dangerous place. Aside from the issues of cyberbullying, social media and ‘talking to strangers’, cybersecurity is as critical for children as it is for adults. The risk of identity and payment card theft is real, and it has become imperative to ensure that children are educated to understand the dangers and that they become empowered to make safe decisions when they are interacting with the virtual world.
Virtual and reality
One of the biggest challenges is getting children to understand the differences between the real world and the virtual one, that not everything they see on the Internet is real, safe or healthy. This is an education issue, and it needs to start at home. When interacting with the virtual and online world, children need to be aware that it is not always safe to just click on a link and that they need to be extremely careful.
The importance of keeping passwords safe needs to be emphasised, as well as the need to keep passwords secret and not to give this information out to people online. Safe online shopping also needs to become part of this education, how to help children understand whether they are buying from a legitimate store and whether or not their purchasing is safe.
Technology is not the answer
While there are technologies available that can assist, the onus is still on human beings, both parents and teachers, to create the necessary level of awareness, understanding and education. Simply limiting access, both from a content and a time perspective, while an important element, will not help when children inevitably find their way online.
While limiting elements such as children’s presence on social media, which is not appropriate for certain age categories, is definitely desirable, and ensuring healthy limits in terms of screen time is important, banning them from accessing content makes the banned content all the more appealing. It effectively becomes the forbidden fruit – so it is important to explain why both content and time online is limited, and help them to understand the risks involved.
Make education fun
Education lies at the very heart of keeping children safe online. Children need to understand the basics of cybersecurity, the terms and what they mean, and the different ways in which people may try to steal information from them while they are online. For example, phishing attacks are an effective method of obtaining information. They may look different when aimed at children, but they have the same end goal, and children need to know why they should not give out their personal information or passwords.
At the same time, education needs to be about making the online experience fun, not about scaring children. There are many organisations spending significant time and effort on this, including Google, who has produced Interland, a gamified virtual world aimed at helping children learn to be safe online with the tagline ‘be Internet awesome’. The reality is that the Internet is part of life today and we cannot keep children off it, so we need to make sure they are empowered with the knowledge and understanding to use it safely.