We all want a safer Internet, but we often put a lot of trust and hope in technology to deliver on that promise. The Internet is really made up of people, though. And people can make the biggest impact in creating a safer Internet. While everyone is impacted by Internet safety, children and youth are disproportionately at risk. The concept of a Safer Internet Day was born out of the desire to create a safer experience for young people.
This year will mark the 19th Safer Internet Day, and the theme is “Together for a Better Internet.” With that in mind, here are some tips for how you can make the Internet a safer place. These tips are intended for youth, but addressed to the adults in their lives.
1. Behave As If Everything is Public and Permanent
Whether it’s a social media post, an email, or a text message, kids should always behave as if that content might be made public, and consider that it might be made public in the distant future. Even if an app claims to be encrypted or private, there are always tools that allow others to capture that interaction. Remember, when Snapchat was launched, it was advertised as keeping images private because they disappeared, but in almost no time there were tools that allowed people to save snaps. Whatever that latest app is, the situation is likely to be the same.
Remind kids that before sharing something online or in a text message, they should ask themselves if they would be ok showing that message to their parents, a teacher, or a police officer. What are they likely to think about that message or post in a year, or five years? “Public and Permanent” means considering not only immediate disclosure, but also how they’re likely to change over time.
2. Protect the Privacy of Others
As digital citizens, we all have a responsibility to protect the privacy of others. The motivation to share content is high for all of us, but for kids it’s a huge part of their social lives. Remind them not to share content without the consent of those involved, and model this behavior by asking for their consent before sharing content that includes them. It might seem harmless to post a group photo or share a funny video, but you don’t know every individual’s situation. Sharing screenshots of text conversations with others is another way that they might be inadvertently doing harm. Keep in mind that things they might think are funny can be hurtful or harmful to others. It’s always a good idea to ask yourself how you would feel if the post or text were about you. Protecting the privacy of others requires empathy, and there’s nothing wrong with teaching kids to be empathetic as a way to create a safer Internet.
3. Use the Security and Privacy Tools Offered
Technology is part of a safer Internet, but in most cases it’s up to people to choose to use it. Everyone should enable a passcode or other authentication method on their phone. Everyone should use a password manager to avoid reusing passwords across different systems. If an app supports multi-factor authentication, then turn it on. If an app doesn’t need location tracking, turn it off. While these tools may be available, they often require some action from the user to enable them. As adults, we can coach and remind the youth in our lives to take that second step to configure security and privacy tools. Make it a habit. If you start out with more restrictive settings, you can always disable them as needed.
And remember, if an app or service is free, then it’s probably collecting data from you and reselling it. Often there’s not a lot that can be done to prevent this type of data collection, but it’s always worth considering whether that app is worth the tradeoff.
4. Be a Healthy Skeptic
Criminals and cyber attackers don’t stick to a static set of methods. They adapt as technology changes to prevent them from being successful. That means that you, as the potential target, need to develop an adaptive response as well. A dose of healthy skepticism goes a long way in preventing attackers from being successful. While it’s easy to provide prescriptive guidance like “don’t click on links in emails” or “don’t accept friend requests,” it’s hardly ever practical. The reality is that kids are going to click on links and they’re going to accept friend requests, and they’re probably going to do so on apps that the adults in their lives aren’t using.
A better approach is to develop an understanding that the Internet presents a number of risks, and a sense of how those risks might be realized. That’s really a fancy way of saying that we can help the kids in our lives develop a gut feeling that something isn’t right. As kids grow and increase their independent use of technology, they should understand that not every identity on the Internet is genuine. Whether it’s a friend request or a text message or some other communication, they should be able to ask themselves how they know the person on the other end of that interaction is real and who they claim to be. Kids should also develop a basic understanding of how links can be faked or malicious. And, they should learn to be suspicious of any situations that involve money or urgency (but especially both).
In the end, Safer Internet Day is a reminder of the work and activities we should all be doing every day to support the youth in our lives. If you want to explore this topic further or are looking for additional resources, here are just a few:
Safer Internet Day
Connect Safely, including parent guides to apps like Roblox and Discord
Safer Internet UK
The Very Real Effects of Cyberbullying on Children