Cybersecurity is a social issue. Here's how we get young people to rally for it

Young people are at the forefront of social issues ranging from climate change to gender equality and mental health — so why are they not engaged in cybersecurity?

Young people are at the forefront of social issues ranging from climate change to gender equality and mental health — so why are they not engaged in cybersecurity? Image: REUTERS/Carlos Duran (COLOMBIA)

Kathy Liu
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This article is part of: Centre for Cybersecurity
  • If cybercrime were a country, it would have one of the world's largest economies — that means it affects a lot of people all over the world.
  • But, unlike causes like climate change or gender equity, young people are not rallying to bolster cybersecurity.
  • That could change by highlighting how cybersecurity is an enabler of so many other causes that people care and campaign about.

Young people are at the forefront of advocating for causes ranging from climate action to gender equality and mental health. But they aren’t rallying around cybersecurity as a social issue.

These are all issues requiring collective action. Why, then, haven’t young people started to demand for cybersecurity the same way as they do for other causes — and what can we do to change that?

Cybersecurity safeguards the stability of our economy, government and our communities. If cybercrime were a country, it would have one of the largest economies in the world.

Cybersecurity shares many similarities with the climate crisis. Both are systemic risks; one threatens the security of our planet and the other the security of our digital livelihood. Both are also consistently in the top 5 current risks, and top 10 risks over both a 2 year and 10 year period, according to the World Economic Forum Risk Report 2024.

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Spotlighting cybersecurity

When asked at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2024 why cybersecurity isn’t at the top of young people’s minds, young changemakers from over 40 countries responded that cybersecurity is intangible, inaccessible and inconvenient.

Cybersecurity may not come with the same stark visuals of wildfires or floods, but these digital forest fires have devastating real-world ramifications. For instance, in the United States alone, in 2023, at least 141 hospitals were directly affected by ransomware attacks, affecting their ability to deliver care.

Cybersecurity may not be a top social issue for young people today, but statistics show that this generation reports higher victimization rates in social media account compromise, phishing, identity theft and cyberbullying. There is a fallacy that young people — the digital natives — are tech savvy, therefore they must be cyber savvy. This is an unfounded equivalence. We are living in an increasingly frictionless world, with ride-sharing and food delivery at our fingertips. This sleek entanglement with our digital gadgets can result in individuals choosing convenience over security. Having a higher risk acceptance can subsequently translate to indifference.

But the responsibility of demanding cybersecurity shouldn’t fall to an individual user. We need collective action across public, private and community stakeholders. Young people must be convinced to spend their already limited time to inspire action; we must instill a sense of immediacy in cybersecurity, however abstract it may seem.

Cybersecurity and its intersecting issues

To make cybersecurity more tangible and urgent, we must consciously and emotionally connect it to social causes young people already care deeply about, bringing it to a meaningful level in a language they already speak. We also need to frame cybersecurity as an enabler for these social issues, and not just a risk to be offset:

The climate crisis and cybersecurity

Starting with the climate crisis, a sustainable future needs a cyber secure one. Cyberattacks on industrial systems that manage hazardous materials, such as water treatment plants, can result in environmental disasters. In addition to these systems, growth of digitized green technologies has created a new class of technology to protect. Advancements in green digital solutions include software-defined power grids, sensors that monitor efficient energy consumption and electrical vehicle charging stations. These are often interconnected and integrated devices and can create system-level vulnerabilities. The speed at which these green technology developments are being rolled out risks function being prioritized over other considerations like cybersecurity.

For young people at the forefront of climate action, integrating cybersecurity into new green technologies, their supply chains and environmental data-sharing can help achieve sustainability in both senses of the word: reducing environmental harms and ensuring that these technologies are themselves built to last and carry out their purpose.

Gender equality and cybersecurity

Another conversation young people are advancing is one of gender equality. Gender inequality offline translates to gender inequality online, and technology often creates new vectors to entrench existing inequalities. Chatham House’s toolkit on integrating gender into cyber capacity building notes several examples of this. Disruptions to public service systems can impede access to women’s health services. We recently saw very real examples of artificially generated explicit images, whose consequences are most serious for women and marginalized groups.

Therefore, for young people championing gender equality, building a cyber secure digital environment can create a safe space for women to participate in the digital (and by extension, the physical) sphere, and not be disincentivized to use new technologies.

Mental health and cybersecurity

Cybersecurity controls can also help maximize the opportunities of digital technologies while minimizing the mental health harms. The Australian Mental Health Commission 2023 report finds that depression, anxiety, self-harm, low self-esteem and loneliness have all been associated with online bullying, with people who have existing mental health concerns being more likely to be bullied. Furthermore, the study finds algorithms and recommender systems also may increase the likelihood of young people seeing harmful and unreliable content online, leading to psychological distress.

For young people supporting mental health advocacy, pushing for investments into cybersecurity and privacy-centric features in online platforms help put control back in users’ hands. This can look like restrictions on commenting and reposting, settings that limit who can see and interact with a user or the ability to block and report users.

Young people have a key role to play in shaping the future of many social issues, and cybersecurity is an enabler as a tool to safeguard critical infrastructure and a means to create a more inclusive society. It is a purposeful cause in its own right, as a keystone in the architecture of our global community.

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