Cybersecurity is just as important for ordinary people—both adults and children—as it is for companies and professional organizations.
I first went online in 1995, when I was eleven years old. Back then, only a very small percentage of households had internet access. My parents had no idea what to expect as I explored the World Wide Web and Usenet freely, and I learned a lot of things about online safety the hard way. As was typical for my generation, I didn't get my first cellphone until I was 20.
It's a whole different world now. I see fifth graders with iPhones and toddlers with iPads. Now more than ever, it's crucial that parents watch over and protect their children's cybersecurity. Back to school time is the perfect occasion to review how you should allow your kids to use PCs, mobile devices, and the internet. Lucky kids will get new smartphones to help them keep in touch with their families and other children, and laptops to help them do research for their homework.
Here are some tips that all parents will find useful to help their kids stay safe in a 21st century world.
Online is Forever
Remind your children that anything they post online will likely be discoverable forever, even when they're really really old, like 33. This applies to social media posts like on Facebook and Twitter, comments on Tumblr and other blogging platforms, YouTube comments, discussions on gaming networks like PlayStation Network and Steam, and even what they write on social networks and online services that haven't been invented yet. What’s posted online may remain online, even if you think you’ve deleted it. For example, if you dig really deep into the Deep Web all the way back to 1997, you'll find a fan site for Clueless that I made on Angelfire while pretending to be Cher Horowitz. I'd be a bit embarrassed if you saw it, but at least it's nothing that jeopardizes my adult life and career as a cybersecurity journalist.
I've seen kids born in the 90s post photos on Facebook of their drunken antics. They obviously weren't considering what future employers might think. It's difficult to get kids to think about how their actions now will affect them possibly decades into the future, but it’s important to keep reminding them of this with persistence and patience.
Behave Online Like You Would In Person
It's time to stop pretending that what you and your kids do on the internet isn't “real.” So much of our lives are online these days that it's as real as anything else.
It’s a good idea to remind your kids to be polite on the internet, and to avoid harassing or trolling as there are real human beings on the other side of monitors and touchscreens. But online behavior is also something to keep in mind because it can impact your children's information security as well.
Would you tell strangers your deepest secrets, or ask them to meet you in a secluded location? Would you leave your front door open, making the contents of your house vulnerable to thieves? If the answer in the “real world” to such questions is no, then the same standards should apply with online communications and actions. While this might seem obvious, reminding your children about it never hurts.
Private information isn't only communicated with words, but also with images and video. For example, a YouTube video shot in your driveway might inadvertently reveal your physical address, while screenshots of your text messages and emails might reveal people's private phone numbers and email addresses. So you should also reinforce to your children the need to be aware about the content they post online.
Make Friends With All of Your Kids' Friends
Not only should you follow all of your children's social media accounts, you should also follow the people who follow them. While your kids are minors, and especially if they're very young, they should only let people they know in person follow them on social media. These can be classmates, friends they've made in extracurricular activities like sports clubs, or adults who are family members. It’s important that you watch your children's social media activities closely, even if they've done nothing to concern you, to ensure that they remain safe online. They can have privacy from their parents once they turn 18, but until then, you need to make sure you have visibility into their online activities.
Being able to have full access to your children's online activity should be a condition of allowing them to have phones, tablets, laptops, and social media accounts. Kids can be overly trusting of people they don't know, and occasionally pedophiles pretend to be children online. While this happens only rarely, it's still something you should watch out for. A much greater risk than pedophiles is people who approach children online as part of social engineering attacks designed to obtain sensitive information. If getting passwords from adults is too frustrating, cyber attackers might try kids as their next targets.
Educate Early and Often
Teach your children about cybersecurity risks like malware and phishing. Yes, even a five year old can grasp the concept of phishing if you explain it in a way they can understand.
Malware is any software that engages in activity that's not in a user's best interests. Phishing is when online communications like emails and websites pretend to be trusted entities like banks, utility companies, or online services such as Amazon or Facebook, in order to acquire malicious access to their targets. A classic example of this is when an email that appears to be from PayPal tells their target that they need to create a new password, and then directs them to a malicious website that acquires their password and username.
When you read news from places like AlienVault's blog about cyber-attacks that affect ordinary people, explain what you've learned to your children in an age appropriate way. If your child is middle school aged or older, you might even want to email a link to the blog post for them to read.
Use Parental Control Settings and Software
There are various applications you can install on PCs running Windows and OS X, and mobile devices running iOS and Android, to protect your children's internet use. Choose one application to handle all of the platforms that your kids use. PC Mag's 2017 review of parental control software can be very helpful for choosing an application that suits your needs.
There are also parental control settings built into operating systems and online services.
- Here's a handy guide from Apple for iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.
- TechAdvisor has an excellent guide for Android.
- There's another guide in Google Safety Center.
- Here's an official guide specifically for YouTube.
- Here's one from Netflix.
- This is a guide from DisableMyCable.com for Roku, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, and Chromecast.
- Here's an official guide for Nintendo Switch.
- And here's official parental control help for Nintendo 3DS.
- This is Valve's guide to Steam's Family View.
- Here's Sony's parental controls guide for PS4.
- Tom's Guide has parental control help for Xbox One and Xbox Live.
Teach Your Kids How to Be Anonymous
You know who your children are online, but strangers shouldn't know this. Ideally, any social media or message board accounts that your children use should only have aliases that cannot be traced back to their real names. If your kid has an account on a service like Twitter, Tumblr, or SnapChat, “SpiceGirls4eva” is preferable to “Sophia Singh-Chan.” Oops, that would have been my generation. Okay, perhaps your kids should try something like “Zendaya4lyfe.” It may embarrass them as they get older, but at least it helps keep their real identity safe until they can manage it more carefully as an adult.
Also, I cannot stress how important it is to teach your kids to keep their passwords, email addresses, home address and personal information private. Remind your kids not only to avoid giving that information out over social media, SMS, or email, but also to avoid entering that information into official looking web forms and forms in mobile apps. Even if it's not phishing, it's still a bad idea for a minor to do that. If their online activity leads them to a screen that asks for an email address or a street address, teach your kids to stop what they're doing until they can show the screen to you. Better yet, all registrations for online services, accounts, and contests should only be done by their parents.
Using mobile devices, PCs, and the internet is something your children have likely been doing from a young age. It's good for them to acquire computer literacy early, and it even may help your children with their schoolwork. But as a parent, you need to be aware of the security risks your children face online, and take appropriate steps to manage these carefully – both by teaching your children what to do and what to avoid, and by monitoring their online activities.