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The Kids Aren’t Alright: Cyber Security and the ‘Digital Natives’

Jenny O'ConnellJenny O'Connell

There seems to be two pervading extremes of opinion regarding youngsters growing up with technology. The first is that today’s (and tomorrow’s) children will consume code with their cornflakes, becoming an army of top-flight computer whizzes apparently by osmosis.

The other is that the current generation of kids and teens have no concept of privacy or security, never giving a thought to the future consequences of their online actions. They’ve never known anything else, the Internet is as natural to them as TV to their parents and privacy is something ethereal that they have never known to miss. Consequently, they treat the Internet as a playground, naive to the looming dystopia populated by predators of every nature.

Reality, if we may be so bold, probably falls somewhere in between.

To start with, children (as with adults) cannot be lumped into a single homogenous group. They will develop different interests, aptitudes and experiences, even in the short time before they get their sticky mitts on their first touchscreen. If we take Piaget’s stages of cognitive development as a template, allowing for individual variances, it seems likely that most children will have their first meaningful interactions with technology during the ‘preoperational stage’ (between approximately 24 months and 7 years). According to the model, logical thought and concepts such as cause and effect are still beyond the reach of most children at this age. The kind of abstract thought required to consider ethics, so vital to the whole concept of computer security, and to think hypothetically about the outcomes of complex situations, is not expected to appear until a child is over 11 years old.

Even for the most naturally gifted of tots, simply exposing them to computers is only likely to make them more proficient users of technology. It won’t automatically mould them into a professional-level programmer, system admin or security analyst, any more than the ability to drive makes one a mechanic.

If we’re lucky, this early interest in technology (unburdened by the fear often displayed by older generations) will spark an enthusiasm that can be harnessed and transformed into valuable skills.

After all, even the children who don’t go on to become IT pros will need to make use of technology, and know how to do so safely. Barring total revolution, computer literacy is set to be an essential life skill for the foreseeable future. Of course, peer pressure alone is likely to cause children to adopt an approach of ubiquitous messaging, which will bring with it a level of technical competency their grandparents can only dream of. The key is to differentiate between the ability to use technology, and the ability to do so as safely as possible.

While the motivated have historically found ways to further their technical learning (resources permitting), education is now beginning to catch up with the need to provide all children with environments they can use to get under the skin of computing. Hopefully, this opportunity will help to lay the foundations of a deeper level of understanding, allowing children to take a broader view of new technologies as they emerge. This is a wonderful chance to impart the basics of information security to the next generation, giving them the best shot at being able to participate in educated discussions on privacy and ethics as adults.

Improved cyber security education at all levels should help cement security concepts in the minds of future policy makers, IT professionals and business leaders. Additionally, highlighting the rewarding career opportunities, with commensurate financial incentives, within the security sector will hopefully address the much reported cyber security skills shortage (as an aside, we’re hiring!)

But what of the flip-side? Terrifying stories of cyber bullying and extortion? Well, there are dangers on the Internet, true enough – if there weren’t, we’d be out of a job!

Parents could attempt to shield their children from these perils by preventing access to the Internet. However, the computing genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and can’t be avoided forever, so perhaps it is better to foster good habits at an early age. Also, to deny children access to technology denies them the myriad of benefits it brings, from Skype calls with grandparents across the country, to thousands of libraries’ worth of information to study.

There is, of course, on-going discussion of how much ‘screen-time’ is too much, for children and for adults. We won’t get into that debate here, but suffice it to say, a child growing up in a developed nation today will at some point be exposed to technology and all that it brings. If not at home, then at school or when visiting with friends.

Consequently, young people need help navigating the dangers of the digital world. In the same way that kids are taught to cross the road safely, they need supervision and guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate, along with the confidence to ask questions when unsure.

Naturally, as children grow into teenagers they begin to slip the bonds of parental control. That is the way of things, and sadly no amount training can ever fully prepare them for the rigours of the world (physical or digital). There is even some evidence to suggest that the areas of the brain responsible for assessing risk continue to develop well into a person’s 20’s. Mistakes will be made online, as with alcohol, relationships, and all the other double-edged swords young people will juggle as they gain independence.

The point is, there will always be dangers of some kind. Kids now-a-days are unlikely to be faced with smallpox, but they will encounter people who wish them harm online. The best we can do to mitigate the risk, is furnish them with a vigilant mindset, a basic set of safety rules to get started, and the space to discuss new problems as they emerge. That sounds like something we can all benefit from.


Concerned about what the future may bring for your business? You may be interested in Team Cymru’s Enterprise Intelligence Service.

Photo Credit: Randy Heinitz, ‘The best present I never got’. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0.