Digital communication technologies and remote learning platforms promise a wealth of new educational opportunities. They also increase students’ time spent online and potential exposure to cyber threats.
Having forced more than 1 billion students out of the classroom worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic has elevated both the benefits and risks associated with remote learning tools. The importance of teaching students about internet safety has never been greater.
The Importance of Internet Security
Cyber attacks are a growing problem for schools: cybersecurity incidents at US public schools nearly tripled year over year in 2019, according to the K-12 Cybersecurity Resource Center. The most common issues were educator and student data breaches, followed by ransomware attacks.
The Impact of COVID-19
Students face greater internet risks as they move to online classes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey of US public K-12 schools conducted by Education Week found that more than three-quarters of schools started the 2020-21 school year with either remote learning (no in-person instruction) or hybrid instruction (limited in-person reopening).
As a result, the use of remote management and collaboration apps has skyrocketed. These technologies enable essential services, but their proliferation creates new vulnerabilities for bad actors to exploit.
The following resources specifically address cybersecurity issues during the COVID-19 pandemic:
- COVID-19 Security Resource Library. The National Cyber Security Alliance compiled recommendations for avoiding cyberthreats and online scams.
- Preparing for and Responding to COVID-19. This resource from the US Department of Education addresses cybersafety for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Understanding the Threat
Many students spend a big part of their day doing homework on their computers, chatting with friends on mobile devices, surfing social media platforms, and playing online games—activities that expose them to online threats. Teachers and parents who want to educate students about those dangers should understand how dishonest people exploit the internet, as well as ways that young people are especially vulnerable.
According to American University School of Education professor Vivian Maria Vasquez, “children who critically consume media by understanding how text and images convey particular messages are more likely to be able to make informed decisions regarding what to believe and why.”
Terms to Know
Learning some of the basic concepts of internet security threats can help parents and educators provide informed guidance to students:
- Adware is software that shows computer users unwanted advertisements (typically pop-ups) or redirects them to websites with advertisements.
- Hacking occurs when a person gains unauthorized access to data. Exploiting weaknesses in computers or networks, hackers steal information such as account numbers or social security numbers.
- Identity theft occurs when someone gains access to another person’s personal information and uses it to commit fraud. Malware such as trojans and spyware are often used to steal personal information.
- Malware, or malicious software, refers to any code designed to interfere with a computer’s normal functioning or help hackers commit a cybercrime. Common types of malware include viruses, worms, and trojans, as well as adware, spyware, and ransomware.
- Phishing is a method used by cyber criminals to obtain confidential information using emails or texts, commonly for the purpose of perpetrating identity theft. A phisher tricks targets into providing personal information such as account passwords and social security numbers.
- Ransomware typically infiltrates via email, luring a user to click on an attachment or visit a website that infects their computer with malicious code that locks valuable digital files. Perpetrators then demand a ransom for the release of the information.
- Social engineering (in an information security context) is the psychological manipulation of people into performing actions or divulging confidential information. Cybercriminals often use manipulative messaging with malware or fake websites to commit online fraud.
- Spyware collects personal information, such as browsing history, for third-party use.
- Trojans are disguised as normal files in order to trick users into downloading them so that a hacker can gain access to a computer.
- Viruses and worms cause damage by installing unwanted programs on computers and networks. Viruses require a host file or program and need intervention from a computer user to spread or replicate. Worms can replicate themselves.
Threats Targeting Young People
Students are subject to the same online security threats that adults face, but their age and inexperience make them particularly vulnerable to certain dangers:
Cyberbullying and hate speech. Online bullying of students is a growing problem, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Data released by the NCES in 2019 showed that of the 20 percent of middle and high school students who reported being bullied during the 2016-17 school year, 15 percent were bullied online or via texts, up from 11.5 percent during the 2014-15 school year. Three times as many female students reported being bullied online or by text (21 percent) as male students (7 percent). Cyberbullying sometimes takes the form of hate speech, which refers to attacks based on attributes such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, disability, sex, or gender identity.
Exposure to inappropriate content. Children can be exposed to a wide variety of age-inappropriate material online, including pornographic content, depictions of violence, and any number of adult topics or conversations.
Online predation. Online predators use the internet to commit child sexual abuse. They can make contact via messaging apps, social and video game networks, and other online forums.
Sexting. Sexting is when a person shares or receives sexually explicit messages or images via mobile devices. Such communications can occur between two students or be initiated by adult predators. Students who engage in sexting can become victims of blackmail attempts aimed at gaining money, acquiring additional sexual content, or initiating physical contact.
Parents, teachers, and guardians can use the following resources to increase their awareness of cyberthreats and teach internet safety for students:
- Child Identity Theft. The Federal Trade Commission offers information about preventing child identity theft.
- Internet Safety. KidsHealth created this guide to raise parents’ awareness about internet safety for children.
- Keeping Children Safe Online. The US Department of Justice offers tips for protecting children from online exploitation.
- Talk to Your Kids. The Federal Trade Commission offers this guide for parents on talking to kids about online safety.
- Teaching Kids About Internet Safety. This tutorial from the Goodwill Community Foundation helps parents and guardians learn how to keep children safe online.
- The Parent’s Guide to Cyberbullying. ConnectSafely offers a guide for protecting children from cyberbullying.
Tips for Teaching Students About Internet Safety
Adults can help students learn about internet safety at every stage of their education. “Because we live in a media-saturated world, it is important to create spaces for children to talk about the texts and images that surround them,” says American University professor Vivian Maria Vasquez. “The place to start is with a child’s questions, passions, and interests. In other words, work with media texts they are already interested in exploring and discussing.”
The following tips explore three major internet safety issues—online threats, privacy, and social interactions—to illustrate how teachers and parents can teach internet safety for students of different age groups.
Students at the elementary level can learn basic internet safety concepts that form a foundation for future instruction:
- Recognizing danger. Internet safety can form the basis of lessons aimed at teaching students to think critically about potential threats. For example, an exercise might outline a danger associated with online activity and the importance of alerting a trusted adult.
- Privacy. Teachers can explore the concept of privacy and its importance. A lesson might establish a definition of personal information—name, address, phone number, and location—and stress the importance of concealing it from everyone but immediate family members.
- Personal interactions. Teachers can use internet safety to teach children about how to interact with strangers. A lesson might establish what constitutes a stranger on the internet and discuss potential dangers associated with interactions with strangers online.
Building on basic safety concepts, educators can introduce middle schoolers to specific internet safety issues:
Identifying threats. Teachers can highlight such topics as verifying someone’s identity online, determining network security, identifying dangerous links, and recognizing online scams and phishing tactics.
Online privacy practices. By exploring issues such as password protection and social media privacy settings, teachers prepare students to use online services safely.
Managing online interactions. Instructors can help students have safe interactions with people they meet via online gaming and social media platforms by exploring issues such as what information is appropriate to share online and how much students really know about people they meet online.
Parents and teachers can instruct high school students about sophisticated online safety issues that they will need to consider as adults:
Evaluating risks associated with new technologies. Examining potential dangers that might be associated with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence can help students think critically about the role that technology plays in their lives.
Exploring the role of big data. Students can learn about the ways corporations and governments collect and use data and discuss the right to privacy.
Fostering healthy online relationships. Parents and teachers can help young adults understand what constitutes a healthy friendship or romantic relationship and apply those standards to the personal interactions they have online.
These resources provide educators with guidance on how to teach students about internet safety and ensure safe learning environments:
- 23 Great Lesson Plans for Internet Safety. Common Sense Media provides internet safety lessons tailored to each K-12 grade level.
- FBI Safe Online Surfing Internet Challenge. This FBI program promotes cyber citizenship with curricula designed for students in grades three through eight.
- OnGuardOnline. The Federal Trade Commission provides online security tips and resources covering computer security, use of public Wi-Fi networks, and online scams.
- Parent’s and Educator’s Guide to Combating Online Hate Speech. This guide from ConnectSafely includes tips for parents and educators about teaching children about online hate speech.
- Teen Cybersafety Guide. WiredSafety offers a guide to online safety and privacy practices specifically for teens.
- Teen Internet Safety Tips. This WebMD guide is designed to help teenagers interact safely online.
Creating Safer Learning Environments
Teaching young people about online threats and incorporating internet security curriculum has never been more important. Mass migration to online classes has heightened awareness and concern about remote learning safety, but internet threats were growing before the COVID-19 pandemic. By teaching students fundamental internet safety practices, parents and educators prepare young people to be successful adults in an increasingly digital world.