The age of cybersecurity is forcing parents to redefine “the talk”

Kids today spend an estimated 45 hours a week in front of screens.
Kids today spend an estimated 45 hours a week in front of screens.
Image: Reuters/Stephen Lam
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According to data, children are using the internet more than ever before, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.

Research shows that three in five children now use the internet at home. That’s 60% compared to 11% in 1997. And it’s estimated that kids ages 8 to 18 spend about 45 hours a week in front of screens.

With internet use built into virtually every stage of childhood, parents face the responsibility of teaching their kids about internet safety at an earlier and earlier age.

It’s time we have “the talk”

There are a vast number of subjects parents have to help their children navigate as they get older. Among these is proactively educating children about internet safety and how to protect oneself online every day.

For a generation reared online, so to speak, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint an age when children are not engaging with the internet. Since the internet is everywhere, and since the way we use it is constantly changing shape, platforms, and algorithms, it’s important to recognize that personal cybersecurity isn’t a topic to cover some day “when they’re ready.”

Members of Generation Z are digital natives because they’ve used the internet and mobile devices practically from infancy. And if parents instill the right habits early, they can be cybersecurity natives, too.

So, how should we approach the topic of cybersecurity with our kids?

The magic password

First up, parents: choosing unique passwords for each account is a must, and kids today need to understand that using one single “master password” for all accounts is unsafe. If this password gets compromised by a data breach, any other accounts linked to that same password are now at risk since hackers have the credentials. By the time we realize our data is leaked, it’s usually already too late to prevent the impending damage—such as stolen identities or hacked email accounts. With all the data breaches making headlines these days, you need to do everything you can to keep your children’s accounts secure. Ensure they use a strong, unique password for each account to help protect data from hackers.

We hear it all the time, but that’s because it’s the best advice: passwords should be complex, contain 12 or more characters, and use a combination of letters and numbers. Additionally, it’s never a good idea to use names, birthdates, or other personal information in a password.

Of course, it can be challenging to remember individual passwords across numerous online accounts. So, you might opt to use a password management tool—such as Dashlane or the ironically-named 1Password, both of which encrypt and store multiple passwords to help keep track of your credentials. These tools are fairly kid-friendly too, to make it easier to get your kids in the habit of using them early on.

Privacy, please

The unfortunate reality is that every piece of information you share online has the potential to be sold, misused, and/or leaked. The number of security breaches continue to rise. There were 3,800 data breaches counted in just the first half of 2019. That’s 54% more data breaches in the same period last year.

Kids need to be cautious about how much personal information they share online, whether it’s through Instagram, TikTok, Roblox, or whatever platform is en vogue.

Personal information can easily find its way into the wrong hands. Think about the Cambridge Analytica scandal, when the data of millions of Facebook users was shared without their consent. Additionally, TikTok, a current Gen-Z social media favorite, is under fire for potentially sending user data to China.

Secure Wi-Fi networks and VPN

Most places offer Wi-Fi access to customers—from malls to gyms to public transportation—which means it’s easy stay connected at all times with a public Wi-Fi network. The problem is these public networks are unsecured, which makes them vulnerable to cybercriminals and hackers.

Bad actors tend to lurk on unsecured Wi-Fi connections to launch man-in-the-middle attacks and intercept any information you enter into a form. For example, if you book a rideshare and enter new payment details from an unsecured coffee-shop connection, a hacker can easily scoop up that information since your connection is not encrypted.

Bottom line: Unsecured Wi-Fi networks are dangerous, and they aren’t worth the benefit of free internet access.

To mitigate this risk, you can use a virtual private network (VPN) when accessing an unsecured Wi-Fi network. VPNs establish a secure internet connection and encrypt your data, which protects your personal information from third parties. As a best practice, always use a VPN service to secure your family’s devices, and make sure to teach your kids when and how to use it so they can stay safe no matter where they are.

Email responsibly

In order to set up any kind of digital account today—from music streaming to social networking to gaming apps—an email account is required. The majority of today’s digital generation often don’t request parental guidance when setting up these email accounts; they are savvy enough to set them up on their own.

Yet even the act of creating a seemingly harmless email account can have some potential security threats.

To get ahead of these risks, it’s a wise move to show your kids how your email works to help teach them the basics.

If you have an email account, it means you also need to be aware of the dangers of phishing emails and the consequences of falling for them. Phishing scams involve emails that might look harmless, but are actually designed to steal your sensitive information. They often do this by encouraging the recipient to click on a malicious link or attachment.

It’s possible for anyone—even kids—to spot a phishing email if they know the warning signs.  These signs include grammatical errors, URLs or links that direct you to the wrong website or emails from vendors requesting credit card information. Make sure your kids understand that they should delete these suspicious emails immediately.

To teach your kids about phishing scams, you might also consider using a service like Interland—a digital safety game created by Google designed specifically to keep young people engaged while they learn best practices.

The internet is now a core part of childhood, and it can impact our kids in unpredictable ways. As parents, it’s up to us to teach our kids how to navigate the online world safely, and ensure they have the information they need to proactively protect themselves and their information.

My best advice to parents? Go and have the talk now.