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How to Teach Kids About Online Safety: A Guide

Kids are online now more than ever, not just during free time, but also during school time. It is impossible to always peek over their shoulder, and depending on their age, they may grow tired of a POS (aka parent over shoulder). The internet can be a dangerous place, but with the right education, kids can navigate hazards and remain safe and calm while online. 

Check out this online safety guide on how to keep your children engaged while learning about cybersecurity and imparting lessons that stick. This guide will work for children ages 6 through 18 with variations. 

1. Keep Lessons Relatable

The first tip to teaching kids about online safety is making sure that your lessons are relatable. For example, if the day’s lesson is about phishing, do not illustrate it with an example of a major corporation’s folly. Instead, liken it to stranger danger. Just like kids know not to talk to strangers on the sidewalk and to distrust strangers who say they have candy, tell them that the same rule applies to online strangers: Walk right by and do not accept anything you are offered. That means not clicking on any links the online stranger sends you, especially when they say you have won a prize. Thirty-four percent of Canadians have encountered a phishing attack since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada. This prevalence means that it is likely someone in your family will receive a phishing message. Warn children that phishing and other social engineering attempts are likely to play with their emotions to make them feel happy, excited, mad, or scared. Encourage your children to always stay calm online and let an adult know when they are approached by strangers. 

2. Emphasize What is at Stake

Along the lines of keeping cybersecurity lessons relatable, make sure that children also know what is at stake if they are irresponsible online. In the case of clicking on suspicious links, tell children that this could make their device ill. When computers are infected with a virus, or are sick, they work slowly and could shut off when they are in the middle of a school assignment. Also, make note of the prevalence of viruses, and how children should stay on guard for them constantly. Over 800,000 Canadian devices had encounters with malware in the last 30 days, at the time this article was written. 

In extreme cases, children can have their identities stolen due to irresponsible online behavior. A stolen identity could affect their credit card eligibility and set them off on the wrong foot in adulthood. Stress the severity of identity theft and the specific consequences. Teenagers who have their sights set on financial freedom, buying a car, or setting up their own bank account could be severely affected. The best way to keep your identity safe is by keeping your Social Insurance Number completely private, never sharing your banking information, and not oversharing online. Canada’s Centre for Digital and Media Literacy explains that preteens especially have a hard time judging the accuracy of online information and are vulnerable to filling out forms that ask for their personal information. When possible, try to keep all internet-connected devices in communal areas of your home so you can periodically check in on your kids. 

When teaching children about online safety, make sure you don’t use fear tactics. Be firm about the potential consequences, but emphasize that kids have your support, the right online literacy skills, and the support of antivirus software and identity theft protection to catch any threats that fall through the cracks. 

3. Use Passphrases!

Passwords are a thing of the past. The hippest new way to protect your accounts is with complex, yet memorable, passphrases. The Government of Canada defines a passphrase as “a memorized phrase consisting of mixed words with or without spaces.” When kids are old enough to be responsible for their own accounts, such as a school login, email address, or social media profile, impart the lesson of passphrases. Thinking up passphrases can turn into a fun exercise. 

When it is time to create a passphrase, have your kids brainstorm some of their favorite things that loosely relate to the account the passphrase is for. For example, a social media site’s passphrase could be about friends, like “A$hleyIsMy#1Fr13nd!” and a school login could be along the lines of “$0cial$tud!esR0ck$!” A loose association may make the passphrase easier to remember. 

If they are gamers, kids may already be familiar with leet, or using symbols in place of letters. Encourage children to practice their leet fluency and substitute as many letters for symbols as they would like. The Government of Canada recommends that passphrases be at least 15 characters long. 

As hard as it might be, never write down passphrases on paper, do not share your password with other people, and do not reuse passphrases. Instead, leverage a password manager, like McAfee True Key, to keep them safe for you. If your child is old enough, encourage them to set up their own account and protect it with two-factor authentication. 

4. See Something, Say Something

Encourage kids to ask questions! Part of your cybersecurity lessons should be to alert an adult when they are not sure if something is quite right. For example, they received an email from grandma, but there is a weird link hidden inside it. Children should know that they can come to you for questions and caution is better than rolling the dice. Questions can then lead to advanced lessons, like how to hover over links to see where they redirect and if the links look fishy. 

Cybersecurity Is for Everyone 

The cybersecurity lessons you impart on children now will set a solid foundation for sound cyber literacy for a lifetime. No one is ever too old or too young to learn the basics and then put them into practice.    Who knows? Maybe you will learn something along the way. 

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