By Colette Davidson
The internet’s influence on political movements and security breeches – as evidenced by the recent US presidential elections and the Wikileaks scandal – shows just how powerful online technology is in our global society. As adults continue to struggle with the role of the internet and social media in their daily lives, the task to educate youth on how to responsibly use these mediums has become paramount. But how, as parents and as a society, do we teach youth the importance of online safety and security?
According to statistics portal Statista, there are an estimated 3.5 billion internet users worldwide – translating roughly to 40 percent of the world’s population. Youth internet usage makes up a large majority, with 92 percent of teens in the US going online daily, according to the Pew Research Center. Around 24 percent said they go online “constantly.” Social media sites like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are the online networks of choice for a majority of youth, where they can easily create their virtual persona.
“Young people don’t have a separation between online and real personas,” says Sean Sullivan, a security advisor at F-Secure, a European cyber security company based in Helsinki, Finland. “They’re not necessarily thinking of what they should put on a profile, they just go out and create a brand for themselves. If something goes wrong with this online persona, who cares? They can easily re-invent it.”
While the ease in which youth go online could signal their ambivalence towards safety and security, studies show that this is not the case. The National Cyber Security Alliance, a non-profit that works with the US’s Department of Homeland Security, says that the greatest security concern for youth ages 13 to 17 is unguaranteed access to their accounts, but that they also have the same concerns as the general public – hacking, identity theft or malware installation.
“Youth share the same concerns as older people,” says Michael Kaiser, Executive Director of the National Cyber Security Alliance. “They are completely aware of what they are experiencing.”
Risks for youth online range from manifest risks – those that can be empirically calculated – and latent risks, which are harder to quantify, says Daria Karpova, a doctoral candidate in sociology who studies internet communication and youth at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
She says that latent risks can be psycho-cognitive – like internet addiction, losing a sense of one’s identity, developing trust in technological systems like cloud services or phone memory that don’t necessarily protect individuals, and creating and breaking friendships more easily via online communications. Manifest risks can include manipulation of personal data, obtaining undesirable or dangerous content, engaging in illegal contact (often between an adult and a minor) and cyber bullying.
Cyberbullying is an especially worrying trend as youth spend more time online, say experts. According to the 2014 EU Kids Online, a report published by the European Commission, five percent of 11 to 13 year olds said they had been bullied online, while eight percent of 14 to 16 year olds had experienced the phenomenon. Overall, it makes for a 12 percent increase since researchers conducted a similar study in 2010.
The US-based Cyberbullying Research Center says that as many as 43 percent of 11 to 15 year olds had experienced cyberbullying as of February 2015, with girls feeling the brunt of the phenomenon.
“Someone being mean or cruel online is very difficult for youth because they experience things in a different way than adults,” says Kaiser. “Peer-to-peer relationships are very impactful for them and having someone say something about their sexual orientation or appearance can be extremely damaging.”
Internet usage is not only expanding but getting younger, and having a connected device has become the norm for youth around the world. While cyber security experts continue to offer solutions to common safety problems like hacking, identity theft and targeting minors, much of the work to do in educating youth about online safety remains in parents’ hands. But Karpova says it’s easier said than done.
“This is the most difficult question I face in studying this social phenomenon,” says Karpova. “The risks of online and mobile technologies are transforming 100 times faster than measures for its prevention.”
She says that parents can start by reducing the time youth spend online and not using smartphones or tablets to calm a bored or fussy child. They can also set a good example by watching how much they are using online technology themselves.
Kaiser says the best thing parents can do is teach young people how to cope with what they confront online.
“The internet is a place where information runs freely and it can be negative,” says Kaiser. “But it’s part of their daily lives in the same way they have to learn how to cross the street, do their homework, etc.”
Ultimately, he says, adults must educate youth on the difference between what they share online and what others may do to them – which they have little control over – and teaching youth to know their own limits.
“You can’t be with your kids at all times – you must build up their confidence,” he says. “They need to learn the same concepts as in everyday life: how do you make a good decision, how do you exercise good judgment, how do you assess things that make you uncomfortable? These are things that parents have to teach their kids anyway.”