Many of us are digital natives, and our children are innately digital. They may not be born with a device in hand, but find themselves in front of a screen from an early age. The preliminary stage of education is steered through technology, where children learn their ABCs and calculus by utilising devices and apps in school. Moreover, the epidemic has shown us how quickly we can adapt and thrive in a digital-first world. But the question is: is this safe? If it isn’t, how do we make it safe?
To answer the first question, no, it isn’t safe. Children are smart, inquisitive, and just as keen to explore the digital world as the physical one. But the digital world has fewer safeguards. In the physical world, we do not need to worry that an adult on another continent can pretend to be a child and talk to our children. But this is a well-founded worry in the digital space. Digital addiction and online bullying can have adverse and even life-threatening impacts on children. If this is the world our children are growing up in, what will it be like when they become adults and work and play in some form of a metaverse?
Dangers of cyberspace
These are serious issues that need to be addressed and efforts are already underway to educate children on the dangers of cyberspace. Though well-intentioned, these are not very effective because they treat cybersecurity like any other subject that is taught in school. And with similar results: children are bored and incentivised to focus on marks rather than applying the knowledge. Also, whatever they learn is theoretical and far removed from reality. This may not be a big problem with other subjects but not so with cybersecurity. Children need to be cyber secure every day of their childhood and need to practise cyber hygiene as soon as they can use a computer or phone without adult assistance. We need something better than the modern equivalent of a chalk-and-talk lecture to help them acquire these skills.
The solution requires a two-stage approach: Stage One is the formation of an advisory council of cybersecurity and education experts, as well as professionals from other disciplines, who will act as an apex body that frames appropriate school cybersecurity policies for real-world impact; establish what cybersecurity measures should be taught and how they should be taught; provide advice on cybersecurity technology and proactive updates on threat trends, and facilitate the creation of counselling/grievance redressal processes that will give children a reliable and comforting authority they can turn to when they encounter online bullying or have other concerns regarding online behaviour that they cannot discuss with the other adults they know.
Also read: How safe are you, online?
Stage Two involves the creation and delivery of cybersecurity awareness programmes that will cater to young minds based on guidance from the advisory council. The textbook-homework-exam model should be strictly avoided in favour of engaging content, interactive presentations, and gamification of lessons. Cybersecurity should be glamorised the way movies glamourise superheroes saving the world from destruction; it should be presented as something noble and valiant and not a chore that ruins all the fun of having a computing device.
It may be possible for a well-resourced school to implement these stages by itself but, realistically, this will require government, academia, and industry to come together to secure the next generation. The effort will be justified as the outcome will be more than just safer children. A study by (ISC)2 reveals a worldwide shortage of 3.4 million cybersecurity professionals. Cultivating a cybersecurity mindset in children will help them access lucrative cybersecurity careers and the nation benefits from a highly skilled workforce.
The writer is Founder and President, K7 Computing