- What children are doing online has more bearing on their wellbeing than how much time they spend online.
- Parents, educators and children should be made aware of the emerging risks to become better equipped and confident in protecting themselves.
- Critical thinking protects children against many cyberthreats, such as social engineering, contact risks and misinformation.
A Common Sense Media study revealed that the average screen time for kids between eight and 12 years was five hours a day, and for teens it was well over seven hours in 2019. Unsurprisingly, according to this recent study, much younger kids got increasingly exposed to screens during the global lockdowns.
Concerned adults worry about children’s excessive screen time or that online risks outweigh the benefits. The temptation for these parents is therefore to focus more on restricting internet use than on enabling their children to participate online in a safe manner.
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While the impact of screen time on children is still being debated, the UNICEF’s Growing up in a connected world report suggests that what children are doing online has more bearing on their wellbeing than how much time they spend online and that children who are more active online are also better at managing online risks.
So rather than hindering children’s internet use, adults should learn how to effectively facilitate the online experience. But faced with the complex and fast evolving technologies, many parents do not feel sufficiently confident to guide their often more tech-savvy children.
It is important to keep in mind that risk does not always lead to harm. Children exposed to online risks may not suffer harm if they have the knowledge and resilience to cope with the experience.
Online risks for children
The OECD Typology of Risks provides a practical examination of emerging risks that parents, educators and children should be made aware of. Simplified, these are:
- Content Risks: which include hateful, harmful or illegal content as well as disinformation.
- Conduct Risks: these refer to children’s own conduct which can make them vulnerable, i.e. in the case of sexting or cyberbullying.
- Contact Risks: which include online predators, sex trafficking and cyber grooming, and have been identified as a growing concern across OECD countries.
- Consumer Risks: such as inappropriate marketing messages as well as online fraud.
- Privacy Risks: many children do not yet understand the privacy disclosures they encounter, nor the value of their personal information. Parents’ desires to overshare (“sharenting”) can also create privacy and security concerns.
- Advanced Technologies Risks: the use of AI-based technologies, Internet of Things (IoT) and extended virtual reality (XR) pose further risks. The immersive virtual worlds within the Metaverse come with new and exacerbated threats, many of which are not well understood yet.
Tips for parents
Just like teaching children about safety in the offline world, we need to talk about online risks. A family agreement is a great way to start the conversation about these risks and how to behave as well as setting healthy boundaries for screen time.
Parental control tools help to block explicit or disturbing content and apps on kids’ devices. Before applying these, it is important to discuss the reasoning behind it and agree on rules that respect kids’ privacy.
One of the most common modus operandi used by cybercriminals, scammers and child predators alike is social engineering. This refers to triggering a victim’s emotions to suppress their critical thinking. Protecting against social engineering requires children (and adults) to not share too much personal information and to apply extra vigilance when something triggers an emotion.
Explain to children that when any message makes them feel anxious (“there has been a security incident”), rushed (“this is going to expire soon”), flattered (“I love your profile picture”), or triggers fear of missing out (FOMO), alarm bells should go off.
Critical thinking and a healthy dose of scepticism are key tools in spotting social engineering scams, online fraud, misinformation and grooming requests.
There are great online resources for both parents and educators providing further guidance:
- Childnet is a UK-based charity that empower children, and those who support them in their online lives.
- InternetMatters helps parents keep their children safe online.
- The Australian Government e-safety commissioner on how to stay safe online.
- US National Cyber Security Alliance’s Stay Safe Online for parents.
Educators and policy-makers
Policymakers need to ensure that cybersecurity awareness and critical thinking becomes a necessary life skill and gets incorporated into public school across subject curriculums to equip children against online risks.
What is the World Economic Forum doing on cybersecurity?
The World Economic Forum’s Centre for Cybersecurity is leading the global response to address systemic cybersecurity challenges and improve digital trust. The centre is an independent and impartial platform committed to fostering international dialogues and collaboration on cybersecurity in the public and private sectors.
Since its launch, the centre has driven impact throughout the cybersecurity ecosystem:
- Training a new generation of cybersecurity experts
Salesforce, Fortinet and the Global Cyber Alliance, in partnership with the Forum, are delivering free and globally accessible training through the Cybersecurity Learning Hub.
- Building a global response to cybersecurity risks
The Forum, in collaboration with the University of Oxford – Oxford Martin School, Palo Alto Networks, Mastercard, KPMG, Europol, European Network and Information Security Agency, and the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, is identifying future global risks from next-generation technology.
- Improving cybersecurity in the aviation industry
Through the Cyber Resilience in the Aviation Industry initiative, the centre has been improving cyber resilience in aviation in collaboration with Deloitte and more than 50 other companies and international organizations.
- Making the global electricity ecosystem more cyber resilient
The centre and the Platform for Shaping the Future of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure have been bringing together leaders from more than 50 businesses, governments, civil society and academia to develop a clear and coherent cybersecurity vision for the electricity industry.
- The Council on the Connected World agreed on IoT security requirements for consumer-facing devices to protect them from cybers threats, calling on the world’s biggest manufacturers and vendors to take action for better IoT security.
- The Forum is also a signatory of the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which aims to ensure global digital peace and security.
Contact us for more information on how to get involved.
For example, as is the case in Finland, in math kids can be taught about how easy it is to lie with statistics, in art how images can be manipulated, and in history propaganda campaigns can be linked to today’s fake news and misinformation. Being able to approach information critically – not cynically – should be the objective here.
This does not mean that the responsibility can be placed squarely on the shoulders of children. Governments should be holding technology and content providers responsible to protect vulnerable groups. Both the public and private sectors should collaborate internationally with relevant working groups such as the World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety to tackle harmful content and take coordinated action to reduce the risk of online harm. Governments should enforce necessary legal and policy frameworks.
Jessica Lahey explains in her book “Gift of Failure”, that overprotective parents create kids who are anxious, risk averse and not equipped to fend for themselves.
By applying a lens of “autonomy-supportive parenting” to the online world, we educate kids about the risks, but at the same time, give them the space to explore and allow them to fail or succeed based on the effects of their own decisions.
This means that rather than trying to restrict every possible internet risk, parents and educators should focus on creating awareness and fostering critical thinking, mindfulness and self-control. These are crucial prerequisites to navigate effectively not just in the digital, but in the offline world as well.