How do you talk online privacy with kids?

Calls for vigilance about password security and phishing emails are often directed at groups such as those who work from home or seniors.

But as the pandemic pushes more of daily life online, there’s another demographic to consider:

Kids.

Patrick Craven directs the Clearwater-based Center for Cyber Safety and Education, a nonprofit focused on helping consumers and organizations get up to speed on best digital security practices. It’s part of a global cybersecurity training organization called the International Information System Security Certification Consortium.

Part of the center’s mission is to start this kind of education as young as possible. As October is “Cybersecurity Awareness Month,” Craven spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about how parents can begin to teach their children about staying safe online. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important to teach kids cybersecurity?

We did a study a few years back and found that 40 percent of elementary school children had already chatted with strangers online, and half of (those children) had given out their phone number. It became a big concern of ours and we did a shift in our educational programs and began creating programs for elementary school kids to teach them how to be safe online. These kids are already involved in social media. They’re spending more time than ever online now. We have to be teaching them some basic principles about what’s bad. Today, it’s not just social media that they communicate (on). Games are all connected. They’re chatting with people online. And just because they’re playing a game that might be designed for 10 year olds doesn’t mean there’s only 10 year olds playing.

The idea that kids are talking with strangers online might freak some parents out. How should parents approach that?

One of the biggest things we try to teach, especially for parents, is how to have conversations with your children. I have talked with a parent who had one child, I think she was like 13, who got solicited all while playing video games. But what was good was that parent had a relationship (with her). As soon as that happened, she got her mom (and) said, ‘Hey, this just happened,’ instead of it progressing further.

Where do you begin when breaking down this material?

Our very first lesson about privacy where we’re trying to teach children (is) what is personal information? What can they share? What shouldn’t they share? Is my favorite pizza personal information, or is my password? We try to begin establishing them to think through what they’re posting and what they’re giving out to people. They’ve got their guard down worse than us as adults because they don’t know anybody. They trust everybody.

Parents might be a little behind on technology themselves, particularly platforms kids use. How can they catch up?

That’s a definite problem because the kids know more about this technology than we do. Part of that opportunity is being able to go to them and say, ‘Hey, tell me how this works. That was a cool emoji. How did you get that? Where did you find that?’ Simply play a game with them. If they’re playing (the video game) Fortnite or whatever, put on the headset. Find out what it’s like. The big thing is you have to learn yourself, and there’s lots of sources out there. IAmCyberSafe.org is our website. We’re a nonprofit and made up of cybersecurity professionals, literally the top cybersecurity professionals in the world. We’ve been working with them to create material.

Many people do meet friends online, even as kids. How do you teach kids to navigate that space safely?

We teach that you can’t meet that stranger (alone). But there’s ways to do it. Mom and Dad can go with you. (The) child on the other end should be doing the same thing. And so now all of a sudden parents are meeting each other. If you bring your parents with you there’s things you can do to help protect yourself. That’s part of that conversation.

The center has a unique tool in its repertoire: Garfield. Tell me about that program.

We have the exclusive global rights to Garfield the cat. And we work with Jim Davis, the creator, to create cartoons and comic books and posters and stickers and trading cards — all kinds of fun ways to engage the younger children. (We) started the Garfield program a few years back (as) a classroom program.

The Center for Cyber Safety and Education uses Garfield as a teaching tool for children to learn about cybersecurity. Pictured is the front of one of their Garfield lessons. | [Courtesy of the Center for Cyber Safety and Education] [ Center for Cyber Safety and Education ]

We would call it an educator kit; it’s a box that has everything a teacher needs for 30 students. We worked with Jim Davis and his team, and we literally hired all the voices for all the Garfield characters. It wasn’t a cat pretending to be Garfield, that was really Garfield. It was designed (so) when they’re watching the cartoon (they have) a class discussion on the topic. It has games and puzzles in it … literally everything a teacher or group leader (needs). There’s even a Garfield at home program that parents can use.

That’s all targeted toward the younger kids, the elementary school kids first through sixth grade. It’s a way to begin that conversation with them. Our strategy is if we can teach them good habits right from the very beginning, then we don’t have to try to break those habits when they’re in high school.

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For more information, visit IAmCyberSafe.org. While most of the organization’s material is free, Garfield material is paid depending on the package chosen.

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