When the pandemic lockdowns began roughly a year ago, precipitating the launch of remote schooling, many parents found their children faced with more screen time than ever before. And with that has come its own mini pandemic of privacy and security issues.
Like all of the businesses that suddenly went remote, schools were largely unprepared for this turn of events, leaving families to access school lessons through their own devices (if they were lucky enough to already own them). Frazzled teachers then asked students to sign up on various mostly non-integrated learning platforms with names and email addresses—for younger students, this required much parental assistance.
Anyone with a school age child will tell you that this time was utter chaos. And while systems for remote and hybrid learning were largely improved by fall 2020, plenty of concerns remain. Among them: the widespread issue of insecure laptops, insecure platforms for web conferencing and classroom apps and the use of free apps that are known for collecting personal data from users.
Parents, numb from much bigger concerns about the pandemic, job security, balancing life in this uncertain new world, would have no time—and likely little opportunity to ask important questions about school cybersecurity, such as, “is the school ensuring that students are using the best privacy controls on all of their apps and programs?” “Are IT staff monitoring how data is being stored on school servers?” “Do you have basic firewall protections in place?”
From my own experience as a school board member, I know that schools are often unaware of their cyber risk insurance coverage or what cybersecurity tools and resources may be available to them through their insurance companies. It is not realistic to expect that most primary and secondary schools would have incident response plans in place, though given the rising number of school data breaches in the past year, and the fact that some schools were knocked offline for days as a result, it should be absolutely mandatory at this point to have one.
And while children’s privacy is protected under COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), with adults having to give consent for children age 13 and under using any new apps online, teachers are given special dispensation to sign in place of parents in an educational context. Many parents may not be aware that COPPA exists, let alone that teachers are making these decisions for them.
So while there is much we as parents cannot control on the institutional side, what we can do is encourage our children to develop healthy habits around internet and computer usage. Let’s face it, for many kids right now, screens serve many purposes—as a means of connecting with friends and family, as entertainment when parents are scrambling to make up work hours, simply as a way to experience the outside world when so much is off limits to them.
That’s why it’s critical that we realistically engage with our kids about the internet, how they are using it and how we can help to keep them safe.
In my house, even before the pandemic, we have had an ongoing conversation with our children about these issues. For one thing we try to minimize screen time and do not allow our children to use our personal devices. This not only minimizes their screen time but it models our willingness to protect our own electronic privacy. At the same time, we require our children to use computers in open spaces (not in bedrooms with the door shut) with screens facing us to ensure that they are not getting into game chats or other vulnerable situations.
We talk to our kids about cyber bullying, and the importance of being kind and respectful to others, recognizing that the dangers for children can be on both sides of the spectrum—not just being victimized but also leaving a trail of negative behaviors online that can later be used against them. We also discourage our kids from using social media as we are all too aware that these platforms can be used for predators, cyber bullying and data collection for both legal and illegal ends.
It’s a good idea to encourage kids to never use their real name in games online or give away any identifying information to strangers. Just as you might train employees to recognize malware and phishing attempts, it’s important to also teach your kids about these dangers which are more prevalent than ever in the home space. Make sure they are regularly changing their passwords—install a password manager to help make it easier for them—and updating their systems, and using antivirus protection where applicable.
As schools across the nation are beginning to open up for in-person learning, we should look at this past year—the sudden changes our children and schools had to adopt and all of their attendant risks—as an opportunity. How can we learn from this and better position ourselves for the next time? How can we ensure that we are nimbler in shifting from in person to distance learning without sacrificing security and privacy?
In the meantime, our work as parents continues. I believe that given the right education kids can be as savvy about computer privacy as any of us. We know that children are resilient and that they are fast learners. With a little luck they might be even better prepared than we were.