If a student from your school had someone knock on their front door, ask for personal information and offer to give them a treat in exchange for that information, what would happen? It depends on the child, but what you know for certain is that your district or school has been teaching stranger danger since that child was in kindergarten, so the odds are good that the interaction would raise a red flag for the student.
Why is it, then, that students are posting videos and photos on TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat without any concern that their school name or home address is displayed prominently in the background?
The reason is simple: we – parents and educators alike – aren’t adequately teaching our kids cyber life skills designed to protect them online.
Life skills are relative – and ever-evolving
Simply put, life skills have always been relative to the time of society. When sabre toothed tigers roamed the earth in 10,000 BC, humans were taught to watch them because their lives, literally, depended on it. When automobiles became more commonplace in the early 1900’s, we had to teach children to look both ways before crossing the street.
Historically, when there have been major changes to the daily norm, we have adjusted our life skills to accommodate those changes – except over the past 20 years. Despite what is arguably the most significant change society has ever undergone – the advent of the internet – we’ve done very little to adjust to the massive technological changes over the past two decades or to properly prepare our children for how the innovation can and will impact their lives. Technology is wonderful in the ways that it’s wonderful. But, without education and guidance, it moves very quickly into truly dangerous territory.
Cyberbullying education isn’t enough
While schools are putting devices in the hands of students as early as kindergarten, and many families are doing so at an even earlier age, we generally are not giving kids the instruction or guidance on how to manage their health and wellbeing, time or security online.
While there have been proactive pockets of parents and educators who were ahead of the curve and informed themselves about both the plusses and minuses of technology, no one could have anticipated the universal adoption of smart phones or the addictive power of social platforms targeted at kids.
One area we have seen schools target heavily with regard to technology is cyberbullying. And while this vicious type of interaction between kids needs to stop, it really is something that schools are already familiar with and have programs in place to handle it.
What’s even more important is to educate kids about how to protect themselves online, how to identify red flags and when to ask for help when the broader, global online community (yes, including their classmates) is held in the palm of their hands.
Cybersecurity life skills to teach
As consumers ourselves, we know that privacy is important. I contend, however, that privacy is an end game and that there are other cyber life skills we need to teach more urgently that will help get us to privacy.
Let’s take a look at five areas that we can really dig into with students that will make a difference in terms of how they conduct – and protect – themselves online.
Cybersecurity Life Skill #1: Digital is real: The physiological responses humans experience when they are in danger – increased heartbeat or breathing, etc. – don’t translate well to the online world. We have to teach kids how to identify risk without those cues and understand that the digital world is the real world. There is no separation between what they say and do on TikTok and what they say and do in their living room.
Cybersecurity Life Skill #2: Healthy skepticism: It sounds dramatic, but it’s not: children today are subjected to military and nation-state grade psychological warfare. From the ads they are served to the click-bait headlines that flash across their Pinterest boards, students are being fed propaganda, and it’s our job to teach them now to stop, think critically, and question why they are seeing what they are seeing. One simple tactic that can be adjusted, depending on the age of the child, is to imagine how they would react if the situation they face online were happening in the physical world.
Cybersecurity Life Skill #3: Trust but verify: Just like we teach students to cite sources in a bibliography, we need to educate them that everything online needs to be verified. Is what you’re seeing on your social platform confirmed in a trusted media outlet? An aside–political propaganda is not just for adults. Nation-state influence is also targeted at children who have influence over part of their parents’ voting decisions, in addition to being a long-game for when those students can vote.
Cybersecurity Life Skill #4: Digital ethics and information warfare: “Don’t look at your neighbor’s paper” is the first time we teach students about ethics. We have to translate this to the digital realm and help them be aware of sensitive content so they don’t mistakenly take photos that have mom and dad’s mortgage statement in the background or that capture an older sibling in a swimsuit as he or she walks by. Additionally, students must learn to be selective about who they share personal information with. Online, a “bad guy” doesn’t always look like a bad guy – it can look surprisingly like a harmless “fellow student.”
Cybersecurity Life Skill #5: When to tell: Kids have to know when to ask for help from an adult they trust. Kindergarteners should tell a parent if they are ever invited to a chat room. A middle- or high-schooler needs to get help when conversation turns to sexual advances or requests for inappropriate photos. The guidance changes year to year, but recognizing something has gone too far and asking for help is ageless.
Cyber security life skills are every bit as important as learning to read, write, or add. They should be taught as soon as a student is given a device to use, and they need to be reinforced every year. We can scale the lessons according to age and grade level, but the principle is the same: today, we live our lives online and have to take precautions to protect ourselves in the digital world.
Instructors know how to reach their students, so teaching these lessons will vary school to school according to their student population. The most important thing is to prioritize cyber life skills and make them part of the ongoing curriculum.