6 Ways to Teach Your Child Cybersecurity Best Practices



  • Teaching children cybersecurity best practices at a young age instills lifelong good habits and offers greater protection as they grow up in a digital world
  • Children shouldn’t be cynical or paranoid about technology, but should be aware of risks and repercussions

How to empower kids to protect themselves from cyber attacks

Recently I spoke to a combined class of 4th and 5th graders about engineering. Not just what it means to be an engineer, but how the practice of engineering informs everyday life—and how they, too, were engineers in a sense.

We'll never know how many of those kids will actually train to become engineers, but I do know that all of them understood my pitch. Engineering has become part of their world, and there is no going back.

Engineering a better and more secure world

For me, it was a powerful lesson. Calcified adults may be resistant to change but kids—especially 8, 9 and 10 year olds—are in active training. Knowing that, shouldn’t we be training them to take security seriously? Should we be teaching them best practices now when they have the best chance of becoming habits? I think so. Here are six ideas I’m working on with my own kids and that you can adopt right now:

1. Teach them to build... and to break

Kids like to create. Encourage that—heck, encourage them to write software if they're up for it—but don't stop there. Also teach them to see flaws in design. Just as the sand castle builder needs to prepare for high tide, good products are built to withstand foreseeable breaks. Teach your child to choose tough-tested smartphones and computing devices and they'll be less vulnerable to digital attackers as they get older.


2. Teach them to ask why

There's no such thing as a free app. Software developers aren't that generous. If they're giving away code, they expect something in return—and usually that means access to some of your personal data. Talk to your children about this. Get them asking why the new app they're about to download is free. Is it a flashlight app? Then why is it asking for access to your calendar? The more your kids learn to ask why, the safer they'll be as adults.

3. Teach them to verify

My kids are great at telling stories. Yet sometimes, what amuses them horrifies me. In a recent example, my daughter told me how some of her classmates like to create fake personas on Facebook. Chances are that plenty of kids (and potentially bad guys) are trying the same thing. Talk with them, remind them that when it's easy to create a fake persona it's tough to trust that the person on the other end of the chat or the Facebook page is who he says he is—and that they should engage cautiously.

4. Teach them that their identity is sacred

Kids are inherently trusting. They don't know any better, which is why I often hear my kids talking about how their friends share passwords. Discourage this early and often. While you don't need to make your child a cynic, they do need to understand that their digital identity is precious.

5. Teach them how to avoid becoming a target

Our dog likes to eat shoes. We've had enough incidents that now my kids default to putting their shoes in a basket out of the pup's reach. Think of digital miscreants the same way. If your kids put their information easily within reach, it's much more likely to be stolen. Don't let that happen. Instead, make sure your kids switch up passwords regularly and encrypt the hard drives of their computers and smart devices.

6. Teach them how to share

Plenty of kids have smartphones with geolocation built in. Coupled with social networks that encourage users to tell friends and followers where they are and you have a real-world problem: Thieves troll networks to find evidence of empty homes ripe for the picking. Teach your kids to share sparingly, using only the data that can't be easily co-opted by those with ill intent.

Good habits make for bad targets

Most adults haven't adopted these habits. Why? They don't know what I know.

Not long after I learned how easy it can be to breach systems purported to be secure—an SQL injection attack is all it took—I turned away from application development and towards application security.

We needn't teach kids to be paranoid. Instead, we can teach them to look for break points, to ask good questions, to verify claims, to protect their identity because it's precious and to keep sensitive information private.

No amount of preparation can keep every miscreant away. But as my kids learned with our shoe-eating dog, good habits make for a tougher target. Shouldn't that be what we want for all of our kids?

Kerry Matre is a senior product manager working on data privacy and security solutions for Hewlett Packard Enterprise and a sought-after speaker on both subjects.