Making the internet safe for children has been a problem that lawmakers have grappled with for decades. During the 2022 State of the Union Address, President Biden called on Congress to boost data privacy protections for children. He specifically challenged online platforms to “prioritize and ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and young people above profit and revenue in the design of their products and services.” This promising statement rallied privacy advocates and serves as the president’s highest-profile endorsement of any major tech policy legislation to date.
As a mother of two, I couldn’t agree more on the need for the government and industry to step up their commitment to keeping children safe online from fraudsters. But while we wait for lawmakers to jolt into action after years of being stagnant, we need to put our own efforts into raising children’s awareness about the different kinds of attacks online and give them the tools to stay safe from bad actors who profit off of their naivety.
Here’s a true story: Cooper is a 12-year old boy who is very well-rounded – academics, athletics, fun and family. His down time is spent playing outside with friends and playing inside, gaming. Last year his online gaming account on a particular platform was hacked. A fraudster stole his login credentials and ended up buying $50 of virtual goods via Cooper’s dad’s charge card, which was on file so that Cooper could make in-game purchases with his parents’ permission. Now that may not seem like much money, but this game has millions of players, most of whom are in the same age range as Cooper. Multiply that $50 by any factor and it could add up quickly to a healthy profit for fraudsters living in low socioeconomic countries or conditions. Plus, it cost his dad nearly two days of time getting the situation sorted with the gaming company and working with the credit card company to stop the fraudulent charge, which they did. But think of the many people this same fraudster scammed who weren’t able to get their money back. Cooper’s account was vulnerable because he had used the same password on each of his online gaming accounts.
Today, a gap exists in how we talk to children about fraud and steps we should be taking to keep them safe online in an increasingly digital world. Cooper and his parents learned the hard way to never use the same password for different online accounts. Now Cooper and his parents change their passwords every six months. It can be difficult for an adult to identify accurately an account takeover attempt, social engineering, or phishing scam, and it’s even more of a challenge for a young child to do so. As children are exposed to situations where they have to have their own online account (today Cooper has eight online accounts) on various types of devices, it’s crucial to start conversations about online “stranger danger” and safety protocols earlier. According to PEW Research, today more than a third of children began interacting with devices before the age of five. Another study found that about a third of children ages 7 to 9 use social media apps on phones or tablets.
The pandemic has magnified this problem, as children’s screen time has doubled since the start of the lock down. Whether kids are online for virtual schooling, playing video games, or engaging with friends on social media, fraudsters are lurking to take advantage of their naivety. Online fraud rose 85% over the last year, with many scammers concentrating on gaming, online streaming, and social media sites – not surprisingly, some of the most popular online activities for children.
Teaching children about online safety starts with using language that is accessible to them. Real-world examples that explain the complexities of online fraud in simple terms will be easier for children to comprehend rather than industry jargon. Actionable safety tips that adults can use to better equip children to navigate the web include:
Never reveal personal information such as name, age, address, school
Use a nickname on social media or gaming profiles rather than real name
Do not share credit card details or allow children to make unsupervised purchases
Create different passwords for every account
Cyber professionals themselves can spread awareness in their own roles to help the children in their lives understand what it takes to fight against fraudsters. For example, explaining that a fraudster is a bad person who steals money from honest people and business, or that account takeover is when a fraudster steals your online account information and pretends to be you. Cyber pros can engage with children to share stories about their careers, experiences, and how they are making the world a better place. This not only teaches the younger generation about online safety, but can also generate interest in cybersecurity as a potential career path for kids.
We all have a duty to protect children from cyber threats. As children spend more time online and engage with devices at an earlier age, it becomes a collective responsibility of parents, teachers, schools, governments, and businesses to help create a safer internet for children.