Practical ways to teach the basics of cybersecurity to children
How do you teach kids about cybersecurity without sounding like an exam guide? A detection engineer shares practical ideas based on interactions with his school-aged daughters.
I am truly amazed by the sheer knowledge the youth of today possess compared to how long it took for me to be exposed to concepts like networking, content creation, virtual interactions, and the internet. Our children are embracing technologies that far exceed anything we could have imagined during our youth. As a cybersecurity professional, I view it as my responsibility to help inform the next generation of the inherent flaws and dangers they may encounter while going about their daily lives. We must be ambassadors of goodwill and teach real-life lessons that will empower them to make educated decisions on how to safely use the technology they rely on daily.
But how do you teach kids these lessons without coming off like an exam guide? I decided to share some recommendations based on real-life accounts with my own children. I hope these principles offer you all some insight on how to teach the basics of cybersecurity to children.
1: Keep it exciting and make them think.
My children love to learn and, like most kids, they seem to learn best through interactions. When my children get arms-deep in piles of Lego blocks, they are only stifled by the limits of their creativity—which is endless. So how can you engage with them about how to keep their devices safe and learn core principles of cybersecurity? Just make it fun! Be the leader in the conversation while listening closely to how they respond.
I started this venture by asking my oldest daughter, “What does cybersecurity mean?” I wasn’t surprised when she told me, “I don’t know…” As the child of a cybersecurity professional, she already knew the answer—I just had to break it down to an easier level to help her realize it. So I asked, “Well, what does cyber mean?” I could tell this was still baffling to her so I asked, “What does security mean?” Her answer was simple: “Staying safe…”
Now we were getting somewhere!
I explained that cyber can mean any device that is connected to a network or the internet. What happened next made me so proud as a father. I asked her if she could think of something she owned that was connected to another device that didn’t have to be connected to the internet. She stated, “My headphones can connect to my device and I can listen to the music without being on the internet.” My heart jumped with glee! How does a child that isn’t even in the first grade know that? The answer is, through experience and interaction. She knows that she can listen to music on her headphones while we are driving and we don’t have to set up a WiFi hotspot for her because her favorite songs are already downloaded to the device.
In another example, I asked my youngest daughter, “Do you know why we have a passcode on your device?” She said, “So my sister can’t play the games I have on it without asking me first!” I just laughed and told her she was authentic. “What does authentic mean?” she asked. I told her that she is the only one like her in the whole world and no one else can play her games unless they know her passcode or she shares it with them.
Teaching simple concepts like the CIA triad and the AAA model to kids can seem daunting when trying to explain the textbook definitions of these core concepts. Bringing the conversation down to their level and keeping it engaging is key to helping solidify new concepts. As long as kids are engaged, the questions will just keep coming. It’s small wins like these that help change the way kids think about how they interact with others and technology.
2: Play the “Word of the Day” game.
Grandparents are completely flummoxed when children use unexpected words like “network,” “WiFi,” “app,” and “router.” I encourage adults to teach new words daily and review this material weekly. We try to make it fun for our children by involving the “Word of the Day” game while doing crafts. It really seems to keep them engaged as they learn with their hands and expand their vocabulary at the same time.
One day, we tried this while making flowers out of paper and learning about the word “identity.” My children watch a lot of shows that involve superheroes, and it was easy to grasp this concept because their favorite characters always seem to have a secret identity. To help teach this new word, I decided to use a couple physical items so they could associate the term “identification” with “identity.”
“Do you know what identity means?” I asked them. In standard fashion, they responded, “I don’t know…” while continuing to draw insects on construction paper. I told them, “Identity is everything about you that makes you unique.”
I showed them my driver’s license and asked them to read me some of the lines on it and what they mean. I was surprised to learn that my oldest daughter already knows my birthday even though she doesn’t know what the acronym DOB stands for. “Why do you think they have my picture on this card?” I asked. They just sort of looked at each other while passing a glue stick. I explained that it would be really useless if they had a picture of my feet on there because my face is what people look at when I’m talking to them.
Through this conversation, they learned the importance of identification, which for them now means something you have that proves you are who you say you are. This key concept is something children learn very well during adolescence as it helps shape the idea of what they want to be when they grow up. It is extremely important they learn the value of keeping their identity secure at an early age. Though my children may not fully understand why someone would want to steal their identity, they do understand why their favorite superheroes must keep their true identity a secret.
3: Teach best practices for protecting content and data.
As adults, we’ve grown accustomed to saving our work, along with other best practices like using strong passwords, avoiding unknown emails, and keeping up-to-date with software patches. It’s never too early to teach kids these lessons.
My children have experienced data loss firsthand and quickly learned that if they do not save their progress, it will be lost. Nothing was more crushing to my youngest daughter than when she spent 30 minutes drawing a picture on her device and wanted to show me her masterpiece. When we couldn’t find it on her app I asked her, “Did you save your picture?”
I’ll never forget that look on her face—and she’ll never forget to save her work regularly. There were many tears involved and a quick life lesson that I know will resonate in her young mind as she grows up. There are some situations that can only be fixed with a tender voice and lots of ice cream.
4: Draw the moral line.
The values we teach our kids at an early age help shape the future of the world they will live in. Cartoons have helped to shape an idea of who my children think are the bad guys, but until recently they vaguely had an idea of what a cybercriminal is.
One day my oldest daughter asked me, “What do you do at your job?” I was an automotive technician for over a decade, and every day my daughter could see my exhaustion and new cuts and bruises on my hands from long hours of hard work. I wasn’t quite sure that she would understand the idea of someone you can’t physically see trying to do harm to other people.
I told her, “Daddy watches over other people’s computers and lets them know when other people are trying to break in to steal their stuff or hurt their computer.” I think the takeaway for her was that daddy is one of the good guys, but she still didn’t understand why someone would want to steal from someone else or try to hurt their computer.
The concept of security in general can be abstract to children, but can be made more concrete by reinforcing the principles of the CIA triad:
Confidentiality can be taught by using a passcode to lock their device every time it is not in use to prevent others from trying to access their device.
Availability can be easy to teach by showing examples of how their favorite apps can’t be used in situations where there is no connection to the internet or screen time has been limited by their parents.
Integrity can be taught by explaining the need to ask permission for In-App-Purchases or alerting parents when some type of popup invades their screens.
The last piece of the triad, Integrity, may be the most important concept to teach children as it helps to set the arrow of the moral compass in the right direction. I feel we did a great job as parents by instilling the idea of transparency at an early age. This is a core value at Red Canary and one that I know helps to build great trust in relationships with our employees and customers. My children know they can tell us anything and that honesty is always the best policy.
They may not know it, but they already understand at an early age one of the fundamental principles of the CIA triad. Though “integrity” may have a different meaning than what is defined in the triad, they already know that strong moral principles help to build character and trust in our relationship with them. After all, we don’t want them to grow up to be hackers unless they wear the white hat, right?
Quick tips and best practices
Here are some quick tips about teaching cybersecurity concepts to children, as well as best practices to instill in youthful minds.
Stress the importance of safeguarding their identity. A lifetime of achievement can be damaged with just a simple click.
Save their progress regularly. Backup, backup, backup…
Always tell a grownup when something doesn’t look right. Popups may contain adware, which can be an initial foothold for various types of malware.
Start the conversations early. The sooner they learn about cyber threats, the easier it is to teach them how to mitigate them.
Engage with them regularly regarding the apps they use. You may find some of the content they consume to be questionable.
Foster their curiosity at an early age. Some of the most brilliant minds of our time spent countless hours taking apart and rebuilding their toys.
Be the administrator of your household. Practice locking down devices when not in use, creating strong passwords, and restricting levels of access to the internet for your children’s devices.
Teach them that they’re accountable for their actions. Their cyber footprint will stay with them for the remainder of their lives.
It’s quite a challenge to imagine the brave new world our sons and daughters will inherit some day. We can play a role in shaping their future to answer the call of any situation they face. That process starts now with teaching them how to safely interact with new technologies that will continue to be the mainstay of their daily lives.
We can’t protect our kids from everything, but we can strive to stay vigilant regarding new cyber threats that come across the horizon and arm our children with technical knowledge that they can apply at an early age. Hopefully, the experiences and lessons I’ve shared can help you through the really tough part of figuring out how to teach some of these security concepts to kids. I know my children will be thankful for them and hope they’ll share them with their friends as they mature into the leaders of tomorrow.
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