Mobile phone ownership has become an inevitable and essential part of life, with 99% of people in the 16 to 24-year-old age bracket owning a smartphone, and over 50% of these individuals beginning their mobile phone journey at the age of only 7. Out of the majority of children that own their own phone, 39% say they couldn’t live without it. But in a world where one in three households in the UK owns a virtual assistant, it’s hardly surprising that we have curated a next-generation so dependent on technology. We need to take on the responsibility for best serving the dependence we’ve passed down to our youth.
So, why do we teach children how to get dressed or brush their teeth, but not show them how to safely navigate the internet? It might be because most people see it as too complex a subject to teach, or because there’s a passing of blame between teachers and parents?
So, why do we teach children how to get dressed or brush their teeth, but not show them how to safely navigate the internet?
Children aren’t innately designed to be technology-dependent – that’s something society has created. This is exactly why educating bodies must take responsibility for the learned behaviour of children online to ensure consistent, relevant and high-quality education, in the same way as they would teach 7-year-olds to read and write.
Why the solution is education, not sheltering
Whilst such easy access to the internet and a whole network of strangers comes with numerous threats and vulnerabilities for children, it’s also reported that 56% of parents feel that their child is more safe and secure owning their own mobile phone, so it’s unlikely that phone usage amongst children will ever be on the decline. Being able to communicate with your child instantaneously as a safety precaution makes giving a child a smartphone a complicated decision. It can be argued that the dangers it brings are outweighed by the practical safety benefits of owning a smartphone, which is why education is key, and not discouraging smartphone use.
The current cybersecurity education landscape
The government currently offers cybersecurity guidance for early years practitioners, informing education providers on how to protect young people in their care. However, this doesn’t provide any user-targeted cybersecurity (in this case, directed at the 7-year-olds owning smartphones), and instead looks at educating teachers on protecting their pupils instead. For older years, CyberFirst offers optional courses and training for 11 to 17 year-olds in schools across the UK, and the government also offers a Cyber School programme for 14 to 18 year-olds – but again, it isn’t compulsory and doesn’t address KS1 pupils or any children under 11.
A lot of the resources available are focused on cybersecurity from a data protection point of view, in terms of backing up your storage and opting for two-factor authentication. While of course data protection is a core pillar of cybersecurity, for children, it should be integrated with basic safety guidance and education on simply navigating the internet; for example, how much information you should share about yourself on social media, or the inability to truly take something back that has been shared with a website or social platform. It’s this form of cybersecurity that’s being neglected, and it’s essential for the protection and risk prevention of children and individuals who have a whole life online ahead of them.
Why this subject will only grow in importance
Fraud reports have increased by a third during the pandemic, with scammers impersonating the likes of Royal Mail, Netflix, and WHO in schemes that are all convincing enough to trick even experienced phone users, never mind children. Giving a child an unlocked smartphone gives them access to the exact same networks and applications of any adult, so children are not in any way immune to the cybersecurity concerns you may have seen in the press recently – including scam texts, phishing emails etc.
It shouldn’t take children falling victim to phishing attempts, catfishing or account hacks for the government to realise the severity of the risks of uninformed internet and smartphone usage in minors
It shouldn’t take children falling victim to phishing attempts, catfishing or account hacks for the government to realise the severity of the risks of uninformed internet and smartphone usage in minors. Bringing a compulsory introduction to basic internet safety practices in schools, as early as KS1, would encourage a more savvy, tech-literate generation that understands how best to use technology to benefit themselves and their safety; things that are as simple as not meeting strangers, not sending hurtful messages, and not sharing images of yourself or your personal details. When the majority of UK households are flooded with Netflix, Amazon Alexas, and Ring doorbells – understanding technology best practices is now as essential as learning to read and write.
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