After the ubiquity of internet access for children of all ages during the COVID-19 lockdown, Wendy Goucher, BCS author, harnesses the power of stories to open a discussion about cyber security.

The history of stories

Over the last couple of months, parents across the country have been trying to work from home and also keep up their child’s education. Oh - and also give online lessons in using Skype, Zoom or Instagram to a relative who generally only uses their computer for email, shopping and card games. Where do you even start?

A long time ago, when schools generally only had one computer (if any) and that one computer was used by a maths teacher to print dot-matrix pictures, I trained to be a teacher. The first lesson I learnt was ‘move from the known to the unknown’. Watch any good presenter, including people doing Ted talks and they keep to that. The easiest way of doing that is to start with a story.

‘Have you heard the one about?’, ‘When I worked on [insert name here] project’, ‘When I chatted to Bruce Schneier (or other well-known cyber security guru)’ and my favourite, ‘Remember [insert name of famous data breach, hack, or other incident]? Well, I was there…’ and so they start.

We humans are almost programmed to learn through stories and while you have been trying to educate your family while still doing your day job, I’m willing to bet that you, too, have used that tactic at some point - even if you didn’t realise.

The modern day parable

From ancient times, humans have been led by people who taught them through stories; religious leaders, tribal and national leaders, even parents and comedians tell us how to behave, or not behave, using stories (or anecdotes as we call them when we are adults). The important thing is, we learn from them.

Now, as life lessons go, I am a little unsure of the story about the small boy defeating an armed giant with a little sling shot. I‘ve always thought that this was not the best example to put in front of children. Young boy with sling shot runs very fast in the other direction from said armed giant, sounds like a better life lesson to me!

And yet, many of you will recognise the story of David and Goliath, even if you haven’t been near a religious text for years. But, you see that is my point. Not only do we hear stories, but we remember them. At the end of a presentation, you are more likely to be able to retell a story the presenter used, than be able to accurately reproduce their key diagram. And even that small illustration is a kind of story, isn’t it?

Cyber security education is the new sex education. Maybe.

Even before the days of lockdown, chatting with parents, grandparents and those who care for young children, I found that they worried about how to talk about cyber security to children. What should they say? What if I frightened them? What if the child wanted to know more than I know? There was so much fear and then throw in guilt because they didn’t know what to say. How could they protect their precious child?

This attitude reminded me of when I learnt about sex education at school. I went to a somewhat progressive comprehensive school in the 70s. Early on in my first year, I remember my Mum opening a note that came from the school on a Thursday or Friday. It said that if parents wanted to tell their child about the ‘facts of life’ then this weekend was the time to do it, because the children would be learning about sex at school the following week.

My poor Mum was mortified. She had no idea what to say or how to say it. I feel embarrassed for her just thinking about it and I have no idea what she said. I certainly avoided any mention of sex with her even into adulthood, it was not a subject we could talk about.

By the time my children were at school, there was no ‘this is the day’ notes; talk about changes in the body and such were discussed as it was appropriate and in a way that worked at that age. I think that is a healthier approach and one that gives more chance for a child to be able to approach the potential horrors that puberty can bring, knowing how to speak to their parents or other close family member.

Talking to pre and early school children

I think some parents’ fear of cyber security is like that. If we wait for ‘the cyber security chat’ when we sit down and explain the ‘facts of cyber’ to a child, the chance for security to be part of the language between parent and child is rushing away fast. We need to start talking to young children about cyber security even before they go to school. Now this is challenging because you are communicating partly by stories but also by example.

My children grew up with one, later both, parents working in information security, so they heard plenty of stories. In fact, stories of what happened when someone didn’t password protect their phone or computer were plentiful, especially when our eldest went to high school. It could be said that at times the exchange of such stories became competitive - that was fine, because they learnt. We set an example. We didn’t share passwords.

Balancing safety and privacy

Professor Karen Renaud and Dr Suzanne Prior have conducted research into how young children learn about cyber security; in particular, their understanding of the importance of keeping passwords private. They found that young children thought it was okay for their parents and teachers to know their passwords and I’m not saying that is wrong. Especially when a child is not really reading yet, it would be hard for them to reliably learn a password, so they need help.

However, it is ideal if they can understand that this is one of those things they will grow out of. They will be big enough to have their private password one day. While the children found the idea of not sharing a password with a teacher or parent difficult, they could understand why they might like to keep a sibling off a favourite toy or computer game. That was the moment that these young children understood what passwords were for. Teaching them from their own ‘known’. Then, from there, they could begin to learn about making a good password.

The ‘days of lockdown’ may well have made parents and families more aware of how children use their computers and devices. It may have led to some heated discussions. That said, it has also offered parents an opportunity to open-up the dialogue about cyber security.

If you have a young child, you don’t have to dread the cyber security chat. Add stories, or examples to your weaponry and drop them in whenever you can. For young ones, be aware of situations where you can show that sometimes looking after their personal stuff (physical things as well as on a device) is about protecting it and this is good.

For older children, see what stories they can find about whatever the cyber security issue is that you are trying to explain. It is likely they will find more examples that are more meaningful for them than you would. However, do take care with that. Don’t send them off to explore bits of the internet you wouldn’t want them to see.

Cyber security as positive protection

Talking about cyber security as another way a child can look after themselves and the things they enjoy, in a language they understand, is a simple but necessary step. Cyber security is essential but it shouldn’t be used as a way to stop children exploring and having fun. Good cyber security education now is something that will protect your child throughout their life.