Trying to Child-Proof the Internet? You’re Missing the Point

Posted: October 7, 2015 / Author: Dror Liwer
October is Cybersecurity Awareness month. In honor of this important initiative, our latest blog post focuses on why you need to make sure your  family - your kids and teenagers - are cyber smart… Being tech savvy is no longer relevant. Much like the floppy disk, it’s outdated and of little use to anyone of consequence. What matters now is digital literacy. Take a look at any U.S. school and you’re likely to find some program devoted to teaching the building blocks of coding. The workplace of the near future will be filled with smartphone-wielding workers who treat the Internet as their playground, taking access and connectivity for granted. The irony is that very few of these digitally literate professionals will care about cybersecurity. And why should they when all we preach is digital literacy? While parents do have an obligation to educate their kids, regardless of age, about the risks involved with browsing the internet, education alone is not enough. Parents need to understand that teens are a mobile first generation, whose over-reliance on mobile devices affects their browsing habits, and exposes them to new risks daily.

The Mobile First, Think Later Generation

A Teens, Social Media and Technology study conducted by Pew in 2015 found that 88% of teens have access to smartphones, with a further 90% using these devices to send text messages. Interestingly, most teens don’t simply send these text messages through their network provider. Instead most use apps like WhatsApp and Kik with 33% of teens relying heavily on these apps. This becomes problematic when you consider that apps like WhatsApp are rife with viruses, malware and other malicious content. In addition, thanks to smartphones most teens have easy and often unlimited Internet access exposing them to even more threats. The Pew study found that 24% of teens are constantly ‘online’ because mobile devices are so widely available. Perhaps what’s even more of a wakeup call for parents is the fact that 58% of teens have downloaded apps to their smartphone or tablet. Left unchecked, who knows what teenagers might get up to. A look at teen’s online behavior is even more worrying, and hints at just how indifferent they are about online security. Consider that teenagers are among the most active age groups on social media, who share more personal information than ever before. A 2013 Pew study found that 91% of teens on Facebook share a photo of themselves, 71% post their school name, 71% post their city; 53% post their email address and 20% post their cell phone number. Whilst, the same research found that 60% of teens have now restricted their Facebook profiles, we still have a long way to go when it comes to educating them about internet safety.

Now Here’s the Real Reason to Worry...

While undoubtedly cause for concern, cyberbullying and social media are not the main threats facing today’s teens. That honor goes to public Wi-Fi. After all, what could be more appealing to a generation that values connectivity above all else than the promise of free Internet? But more and more teens are discovering the hard way that free almost never means risk-free. The real costs of connecting to these networks are too frightening to comprehend. So risky, in fact, that some security experts have referred to unsecured Wi-Fi networks as public hazards. Wi-Fi networks tend to be wide open to hackers, and make any connected devices vulnerable to attack. Because these networks are unencrypted it’s easy for hackers to intercept data including files transferred and emails to web searches. These unsecured networks make it easy to wirelessly eavesdrop on a teen’s online activity. But this is only one of the possibilities. Another way in which Wi-Fi vulnerabilities have been exploited include man-in-the-middle attacks where the hacker is able to capture and modify sensitive data being exchanged between a user and the server. So called Evil Twin attacks are also becoming increasingly common. These involve tricking a user into connecting to a malicious network which can then be used to intercept all data. For teens, public Wi-Fi is a necessity, and they’ll continue to connect to these unsecure networks regardless of the risk involved. In fact, a survey conducted in 2014 found that 60% of teens surveyed had experienced an online violation of sorts whether in the form of a computer virus or identity theft. Teens may be increasingly aware of the risks involved in connecting to a public Wi-Fi network, yet the same survey found that at least 72% of teens continue to use these networks.

New Rules For a New Generation of Internet Users

Parents and teachers cannot afford to ignore teen’s browsing habits any longer. While it’s important to build trust, it’s just as essential to educate kids about the dangers of poor cybersecurity. After all educating kids will not only keep them and their data safe online, it will empower them as Internet users. This will help kids understand the public nature of the Internet, and may teach them to appreciate the importance of data privacy. But perhaps the real question is how do you go about keeping teens safe online? What makes this particularly tricky is that it’s no longer sufficient to teach kids to steer clear of malware and other viruses. In today’s hyperconnected world, true cybersecurity starts with raising responsible Internet citizens who have the necessary skills to navigate the many threats and complexities of the online environment. This includes teaching kids about the dangers of public Wi-Fi, and ingraining in them the idea that they shouldn’t do anything online that they wouldn’t do face-to-face. While some parents may choose to restrict their teen’s Internet access, this is unlikely to be effective in the long run. It’s far more rewarding to encourage critical thinking, by allowing your kids to decide for themselves whether an app or website is safe. Of course this doesn’t mean you need to take unnecessary risks. There are several steps a concerned parent can take to prevent a data breach while keeping their kids safe. While none of these solutions are full-proof, they do provide basic protection. Some of the options including use a VPN service. This helps mask one’s IP address, and can help reduce phishing scams. Another option is to encourage teens to only visit websites which are https encrypted where possible. This encryption decreases the likelihood of a Man-in-the-Middle attack. It’s also important to encourage teens to manually select Wi-Fi networks. This can be done by disabling the auto-connect feature on mobile devices. Whatever the approach, parents need to remember that the most important thing is to teach kids to be digital leaders whose safe, responsible online behavior can serve as an example to others.
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