The pandemic saw kids shift a majority of their learning and social interactions online, and this also increased their vulnerability to cyber threats and dangers, leaving us adults hungry for advice and guidance on how to ensure our littles can spend time on the web safely and free of risk. We chatted with Jennifer Flanagan, education expert and president/CEO of Actua, to get some helpful tips. —Vita Daily
Hi Jennifer! Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.
My name is Jennifer Flanagan, and I have been an advocate for inclusive science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and skills development in Canada for over 25 years. As founder and CEO of Actua, Canada’s largest STEM outreach organization, I work with educators, policymakers, community leaders and industry to unlock the infinite potential of youth through transformative learning experiences while radically and relentlessly removing barriers to STEM education and careers.
In terms of the effects of the pandemic on our Internet habits, why is awareness around cyber safety now more important than ever?
Youth (in fact, all of us!) are online now more than ever, having had to rely on technologies to learn, connect and socialize through the COVID-19 pandemic. When it comes to screens and Internet habits, we all know there is no off button for us or our children. The online world has become an easy place for us all, but particularly youth, to build connections, express opinions and foster a sense of belonging during a very challenging time. And while these interactions can contribute to positive development and well-being, the Internet can also be a place where youth fall victim to various online threats, including phishing, fraud, ID theft, bullying and exploitation. We have seen a dramatic increase in reported cases of online victimization throughout the pandemic among youth.
In terms of kids’ Internet safety, what are some of the challenges, pressures, and/or vulnerabilities children are facing online these days, and why?
Life, in general, has been extremely challenging over the past few years. But the challenges we face online have been magnified as we find ourselves spending more and more time on our screens. Based on Actua’s conversations with cybersecurity experts, including law enforcement, cyber safety experts, educators and youth, we know that the rise of social media and the pandemic has resulted in increased social isolation, and young people who are isolated are at greater risk of manipulation and exploitation online. Youth are also naturally curious—an invaluable trait we admire about our children—and predisposed to seek connection, relationships, intimacy and belonging. Youth also now have instantaneous and constant access to content from every part of the world 24/7, including massive amounts of information and misinformation. This immediate access, innate curiosity and increased screen time can make youth more susceptible to online threats. Younger children for example, can be easily lured and redirected to inappropriate content, while older youth may accept friend requests and engage in conversations with strangers.
What are some signs that kids might need help when it comes to online activities?
It’s vital that parents are able to recognize common signs that may indicate their kids need help when it comes to online activity. These signs include:
- spending too much time online (especially at night) or behind closed doors;
- withdrawal from friends and family while constantly checking their devices;
- a loss of interest in offline activities;
- increased secrecy (i.e. kids not letting you access their social channels or worried you’ll see their devices);
- multiple accounts (i.e emails, social media accounts);
- phone calls or messages to your children from people you or they don’t know; and
- changes in their mental health (i.e. changes in mood, behavior, sleep, or appetite).
How does Actua work with parents and teachers to equip and empower youth with the skills and knowledge they need to be good digital citizens, and to stay safe? Additionally, tell us about the E2C pilot project?
Actua’s Engage. Empower. Connect (E2C) builds positive digital engagement and experiences for youth to feel empowered and safe online. The project builds on the foundation of Actua’s national coding and digital skills program and supports youth to understand how to critically assess online interactions, be proactive about online threats and use technology in innovative, healthy and safe ways. Our goal is to foster a cyber smart generation ready to embrace the challenges of the digital age. As part of the project, Actua just released a series of online resources and activities to help parents and educators empower youth with a cyber-smart mindset, in addition to our existing curated library of online learning resources on online safety.
What are some top tips/advice/guidance for kids and their parents around how to spend their time online safely and free of risk?
Parents and teachers have been under a lot of stress over the past few years, but there are some easy steps they can take to empower youth with the skills and knowledge they need to be good digital citizens and to stay safe online. For parents this looks like:
- Talk to your kids about what they are doing online. Do it often, and start young. Having an open conversation with your kids, whatever the age, about what they’re doing online can help you as a parent identify challenges or risks they may face and the support they need.
- Embrace technology. Technology is constantly evolving. As parents, we don’t need to be experts in all things technology, but we should have a general idea about the technology and websites our kids are using. This includes the security and privacy settings on apps and commonly used websites. Better yet, let your kids teach you something to spark discussions and open communications.
- Talk about family-based values and expectations. Talk to your kids about your basic family values and then translate those into appropriate behaviours on the Internet. For example, as a family, we respect others, respect others’ privacy, and respect others’ property.
- Recognize good choices and decision making. Challenge your children to think critically about all content they are consuming online, and let them have more autonomy and freedom online as they demonstrate good decision making.
How about adults? What are some of the risks and safety issues (or, simply, challenges) they face online?
While adults typically have more experience and are generally more equipped to monitor risk, safety issues and challenges that they face online, compared to children, some demographics with less than average digital literacy skills, such as seniors, are more at risk for financial scams or fraudulent activity. Whether through catfishing from a romantic or companionship point of view, con artists are savvier than ever with photoshop skills and ambushing techniques. Cyber security is something anyone with access to the Internet, child or adult, should take seriously.
Final, personal question: what are some boundaries or rules you’ve placed on your own Internet usage to make being online a more positive experience for yourself?
I have been very conscious about a few things in particular. One is that I am very discerning about who and what I follow on social media. I regularly and ruthlessly unfollow anything that doesn’t bring me joy or fun or levity and I encourage my daughters to do the same. Like most working adults, I do spend a huge amount of my day on a screen and I have also fallen prey to mindlessly scrolling at night to entertain or distract myself from the negative news happening in the world. That said, I have ongoing discussions with my young daughters about balance and healthy relationship with technology. We don’t have devices at the dinner table, we don’t charge devices in bedrooms and we always make sure we are getting outside every single day for fresh air and exercise.