Fostering A New Generation Of Cybersmart Children

This rapid shift to e-learning has not only exposed regional and household disparities regarding access to technology, but also placed a huge conundrum in front of us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown up several perplexing challenges, unmatched in scale and impact. One of the most significant impacts has been on children. UNESCO estimates that 1.26 Billion children worldwide were affected by school closures. In India, 320 million learners have been affected because of the transition to e-learning. 

This rapid shift to e-learning has not only exposed regional and household disparities regarding access to technology, but also placed a huge conundrum in front of us. The exponential growth in the number of children online has presented predators with new soft targets to exploit. How do we balance children’s need for access to the internet with checks to ensure their safety in cyberspace? How do we allow them to explore the wonders of the online world without exposing them to its dark underbelly? It is an established fact that the recent incidents of online attacks on children/students are rising – phishing, identity thefts, sextortion, hacking and cyberbullying.

When it comes to India, it is a completely different ball game with multiple challenges compounded by the current pandemic. Many students here are first-generation school-goers and internet users in their family and hence cannot rely on parental guidance. For other sections of the population, parents are juggling work from home with online schooling/engaging youngsters and most often are unable to monitor their children’s online activities.  

The docudrama The Social Dilemma is an eye-opener at several levels, highlighting our growing dependence on technology/social media and the addictive nature of the internet. The digital world is a double-edged sword; things that seemed futuristic pre-COVID are now standard, thanks to technology. In the documentary, Justin Rosenstein, one of the creators of Facebook’s ‘like’ button, states that the motivation behind building the much loved/hated ‘like’ button was – ‘Can we spread positivity and love in the world’? How and when then did this turn negative, into issues around self-esteem / depression and such? When ‘screens’ are such an integral part of our lives now – work, education, social, entertainment – we need to enter the digital world equipped to protect ourselves and our children to handle the dark side. We must move the needle to providing safer digital environments and security on the internet.

Digital technologies are here to stay. Technologies connect us. Digital natives are the order of the day. This is not the time to fret, but to act. How do we solve the problem of cybersafety for vulnerable sections of our population? How do we create a protective cyberbubble for our children? What role must parents, educators, industry players and policymakers play in preventing children from falling prey to cybercrimes? It is imperative to make cyberspace safe. Equally important is the need for education on Digital Citizenship, Netiquette and being Cybersmart. It is time for concerted efforts to teach our children to be digitally safe.

There have been several initiatives by the central government and state governments to make online learning and the digital world safe. Industry bodies, educational institutes and parent organizations have in recent times been consistently raising this issue. Now is the time to formulate an all-encompassing, cohesive plan for greater impact. In South Korea, the Korea Internet Safety Commission declared ‘The Netizen Ethics Code’ in 2000 and the Ministry of Education prepared an ‘Information Communication Ethics Education Guidelines,’ which is now taught in schools and that in my view is the first step forward. 

Here is a six-pronged approach to consider:

Convene key stakeholders across government, industry and education to develop cybersafety best practices for children. India has a new education policy; the Ministry of Human Resource Development recently brought out a digital handbook for safe online learning during COVID-19 with dos and don’ts for schools and students. Government of India’s Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA) aims to bridge the social divide in digital learning. What we need now is to bring in the experience and unique challenges that schools / colleges face in tackling threats on the ground and the expertise of the private sector to devise action plans. Only a collaborative approach with collective action will enable us to plug all the gaps in the design and deployment of such plans. 

Bring in new perspectives. To fight crime, one needs to think smarter than the criminals. Cybersecurity experts tell us that to outsmart predators – someone who is faceless, nameless, and working from a distant part of the world with little to lose – one needs not just the latest technologies, but also differentiated innovative thinking. We need diversity and inclusivity in cybersecurity – encourage more women and people from heterogeneous backgrounds to bring in new perspectives to join the fight. This will be particularly useful where there are immense social and geographical divides that have to be crossed.

Keep the conversations going. Being cybersmart is not a one-time exercise, but an ongoing process. There is a need to constantly reiterate the distinction between the virtual and the real world. Changing perceptions, habits and behaviors is not easy. Hence, for every rule or policy that we devise there needs to be multiple levels of communication and regular awareness-building sessions in the community. We need to include cybersmart conversations as part of the school curriculum and include educators, students, industry experts, counsellors and parents. It must be a shared commitment.

Identify advocates of cybersafety. Children identify with a problem better when they can put a face or a name to it. We need inspiring leaders from the community who can step up as cybersecurity advocates. People who are expressive, who can make an emotional connect, sportspersons, medical professionals, peers, ‘persons next door’ who are articulate and can drive home the message well. These advocates will help spawn a movement encouraging many more active voices to help children be safe on the internet. 

Strong legislation. Stringent cybersecurity policies and watertight regulations to provide definitive solutions should be put in place. Complaints, registration and delivering quick justice will help remove the social stigma surrounding a cybercrime/attack victim. It may be time to create a nodal central agency (like the CBI)  dedicated to cybersafety led by a DGP with representation in every state to handle cybersecurity complaints, so anyone impacted, including children, receive speedy redressal of complaints.

Help and guidance for those in need. Cybersecurity is a fast-evolving field, with technology moving at the speed of lightning. New challenging threats emerge all the time. Latest technologies, potential risks, action plans to solve cybercrime with regular upgrades should be mandatory. One must keep in mind that in all this, it is those from lesser privileged backgrounds that are at a disadvantage due to inaccessibility to information and the lack of resources to attain the same. This provides an ideal opportunity for industry players to step forward and deploy cost-effective solutions through their CSR efforts. 

Technology empowers with its easy access to the fascinating digital world, but it can also wreak havoc without the appropriate tools to understand and manage this constantly evolving world. The current pandemic has thrown up the intense need to prioritize cybersecurity. As a community, we have a societal responsibility to educate communities, children, particularly those from vulnerable backgrounds, to keep them protected in cyberspace.

Being cybersmart is not a choice anymore, it MUST become a way of life!

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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