Undoubtedly, humanity and the digital world are inseparable at this point, as the Internet now plays an indispensable role in various facets of life, from navigation and entertainment to critical components of modern work processes.
Unlike the older generation, which had to adapt to the rise of the Internet, children today are born into the digital age, presenting a new set of plusses and problems.
On one hand, the digital age gives children access to a vast amount of information, resources, and opportunities that previous generations didn’t have.
This offers them an unprecedented opportunity to easily learn new skills, participate in online communities, and connect with others around the world through various platforms.
On the other hand, this also brings about new challenges and risks that were absent before the Internet age: cyberattacks, cyberbullying, online predators, and threats to their privacy and security, as well as being exposed to inappropriate content.
According to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission’s (MCMC’s) 2020 Internet Users Survey, 47% of children aged five to 17 in the country are daily users of the Internet, while only 53.3% of parents are aware of the parental controls available.
However, despite being aware of these tools, the MCMC report found that only 34.4% of those parents actively used the features to safeguard their children online.
Malaysian parents appear to largely favour more traditional methods like setting rules (72.8%), staying in proximity of a child when they are using the Internet (57.4%), discussing online safety with their children in advance (50%), and checking their social media accounts and browsing history (47.7%).
However, 7.4% of respondents said they do not take any action at all.
This is especially concerning as Netherlands-based cybersecurity company and VPN provider Surfshark found a surge in cybercrime targeting children in 2020, rising by 144% from the previous year.
The same report also mentions that the American Federal Bureau of Investigation received almost ten thousand complaints on the matter, which involved over US$2mil (RM9.1mil) in losses.
A more recent report from cybersecurity firm Kaspersky in January echoes the claims of the Surfshark study, saying that 2022 saw a dramatic 57% rise in cyberattacks targeting minors.
These cyberattacks were primarily conducted under the guise of popular video game titles, including Minecraft (affecting 140,515 users), Roblox (38,850 users), and Among Us (27,503 users), among others.
To bridge the knowledge gap, more initiatives are being launched to educate both parents and children about cybersecurity, reflecting the growing importance of digital safety.
Educate and empower
Take, for instance, the ongoing Be Internet Awesome programme, which mainly focuses on teaching kids the basics of digital citizenship and online safety.
The programme, by Google, covers five main topics: guiding children on the dos and don’ts of sharing information online; recognising fake content; safeguarding account privacy and security; fostering positive online behaviour; and knowing when to seek help from adults.
Children, it said, should be informed about the importance of refraining from sharing identifying information, such as their address, phone number, password, and email.
When it comes to the private information of others, it’s essential that they grasp the importance of respecting their privacy and refraining from sharing such information without consent.
It’s crucial to instil the practice of “thinking before posting” to combat misunderstanding, especially since online statements can be misinterpreted by others.
Children should also be motivated to exercise critical thinking when seeking information online, as not all that they encounter may be accurate or true.
The programme advises children to be cautious when receiving friend requests from strangers, urging them to verify the authenticity of the accounts.
It is recommended that they communicate only with individuals they already know offline in order to ensure safety.
Children should be taught about good online behaviour, with an emphasis on treating others as they want to be treated, and learn to use safety tools like “blocking” and “muting” for dealing with hostile interactions.
They have to be empowered to seek help if they encounter negative situations online or feel uncomfortable.
It is important for them to recognise when to report a situation to a parent or the platform using the available tools.
Google also created an interactive browser game called Interland for the programme, with a number of themed worlds that approach a specific digital citizenship- or online safety-related topic.
Kaspersky recommends an approach that focuses on ensuring parents understand the dangers that their children face online, which in turn would allow them to guide them appropriately.
In its resource centre, the antivirus provider went on to outline three sources of threats: strangers, peers, and the children themselves.
In short, strangers, who often pretend to be children themselves, tend to target them on platforms that they frequent, such as social media and gaming.
This can be particularly dangerous, as a United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef) report found that more than half of teenagers it surveyed had met with someone in person after having first encountered them online.
The report, 2020 Our Lives Online, also revealed that 92% of Malaysian children aged five to 17 have Internet access and that both boys and girls reported receiving sexual messages in the form of text and images from strangers on social media.
At times, the predators may also attempt to convince a child to share their passwords or payment details, like credit card information.
When it comes to peers, Kaspersky warns that bullying can be a concern, especially as private information belonging to a child may be shared via platforms like social media and messaging, causing great distress.
In other instances, a child could pose a risk to himself or herself by installing unwanted software or malware or oversharing personal information.
The company says that one way to protect kids online is to establish ground rules on Internet use and screen time, which is now a common practice among most parents in Malaysia, according to the MCMC report.
Parents should also have proper discussions with their kids to make sure that they’re both on the same page when it comes to understanding the digital world.
Other tips the company shared include using child-friendly resources to avoid inappropriate content, tools such as antivirus programs, content blockers and filters for blocking malware and phishing attacks, and password managers.
Meanwhile, other firms are taking a more guided approach when it comes to educating children on cybersecurity.
Cybersecurity firm Palo Alto Networks advocates for a more structured teaching approach via its Cyber Activities in Cybersecurity Education For Students (Cyber Aces) programme.
The programme is made up of four areas – connectivity, privacy, communication, and digital citizenship – and is split across four age brackets.
The lessons are also designed to be “unplugged”, allowing students to complete the lessons with just a pen and paper.
The aim was to enable children without digital devices to learn and be equipped with cybersecurity knowledge.
According to Palo Alto Networks, the programme is meant to act as a form of interactive cybersecurity education for children from the age of five to 15, with the initiative also encouraging them to consider a career in cybersecurity in the future.
“This programme provides the cybersecurity understanding and know-how for students to become good digital citizens while ensuring they have safer online experiences.
“The lessons have been constructed in such a way that they can be facilitated by anyone, regardless of their knowledge level.
“One does not need to work in the digital field to help keep our children safe. Almost anyone with a basic understanding of technology can deliver the content to programme participants,” says Palo Alto Networks’ country manager for Malaysia, Lim Suk Hua.
Locally, there’s the Klik Dengan Bijak initiative by the MCMC that features a variety of resources touching on online gaming, the sharing of personal information, and parenting alongside a collection of videos.
The materials on the Klik Dengan Bijak website also offer advice on maintaining computer security, spotting fake profiles on ecommerce websites and listings, and other information.
Play it safe
Market research company Ipsos published a study produced in collaboration with video game tracking service GameTrack on child safety and video games in 2021.
The study found that 41% of parents indicated that their children play online multiplayer games; 46% of those parents claimed they supervise their children when online communication is featured in the game, while 36% said they monitor friend requests and chats.
A British non-profit, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), advises that parents take the necessary steps to understand online games.
This includes the content rating of the title, whether the title features messaging or social aspects, in-game purchases, and the possibility of the child’s exposure to trolling, griefing, and scams.
Bad behaviour, such as griefing or trolling, is a deliberate attempt to make the game worse for other players by either intentionally playing poorly or harassing them.
Video games generally have a content rating with a recommended age based on the themes contained in the title.
A rating from an organisation like the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) or Pan-European Game Information (PEGI) will usually be included on the cover of the game box or on the store page for online games.
For instance, Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V), a title popular among children according to online reports, is rated M for Mature 17+ by the ESRB, indicating the title is suitable for those aged 17 and older. The same game is rated PEGI 18, suitable only for those over 18 in Europe.
Other details that are listed on the PEGI website for the game include blood and gore, intense violence, mature humour, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, and the use of drugs and alcohol.
In some video games, players are able to play and communicate with strangers online over text or voice chat, which may expose them to risks such as grooming or other sorts of online abuse.
At other times, they may also use platforms such as Reddit or Discord to join communities centred around the games. It is important that parents are aware of this type of activity among their children.
Scams are another concerning issue for in-game items such as skins (cosmetics that alter the appearance of characters or objects in-game), which can be bought or traded among players, making young gamers susceptible to being cheated out of these items for free.
There have also been cases where children spent large amounts on in-game microtransactions, racking up thousands in video game fees on their parent’s credit card.
The NSPCC advises against storing payment information on children’s devices.
It also highlighted that parents should know how to report issues faced in games and where they can get further support.