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By Doros Hadjizenonos, Regional Director, Southern Africa, Fortinet

Students today are surrounded by technology, from the phones in their pockets to the laptops they use at school. While the internet is a valuable tool for kids of all ages when it comes to communication and learning, it’s also a playground for bad behaviour—like cyberbullying, identity theft, online predators, and so much more.

The more access children of all ages have to these devices, the more vital it is for governments, schools, educators, and parents to collaborate to promote strong internet safety for students. By working together, we can give students the knowledge they need to protect themselves and their data and stay safe online.

The importance of internet safety for students

While it can be overwhelming to think about the many risks that come with children of all ages using the internet, the good news is that there are many rules and regulations designed to keep students safe online. While regulatory actions go a long way in protecting children online, parents and guardians also play a critical role in helping children develop their knowledge about internet safety.

First, talk to children about what’s expected from them online—this includes setting boundaries regarding how much time they’re allowed to spend on devices each day and what sites and apps are okay to use. Secondly, consider keeping computers and other devices in a common area. This makes it easier for guardians to monitor how kids spend their time online and discourages kids from participating in unsafe online behaviour.

Parental controls can also be helpful, as they offer guardians an additional layer of protection by monitoring, filtering, and restricting access to questionable content.

Key aspects of keeping students safe online

Given that school districts and their students are attractive targets to threat actors, schools must prioritise several core aspects of internet safety. Specifically, schools have a vital role to play in:

  1. Preventing access to inappropriate or harmful digital content;
  2. Helping students form smart security habits when using email, social media, chat, messaging, forums, or other communication forms; and
  3. Restricting unauthorised access to systems, such as hacking.

As children increasingly use internet-connected devices for everything from communicating with friends to completing schoolwork, they should be aware of a handful of critical risks.

Being mindful of their digital footprint

Students should think of their digital footprint as the trail they leave behind of everything they do online, from the websites they visit to the content they post on social sites like Instagram or TikTok. Online activity often “lives” forever, meaning it’s challenging—if not impossible—to remove information from the internet at a later time. This leads to privacy concerns and can make an individual susceptible to receiving unwanted or inappropriate content. Helping kids understand and use privacy settings, keeping a list of accounts (and encouraging them to delete the ones they no longer use), and being mindful of what they publish are all excellent ways to manage a digital footprint.

Maintaining good password hygiene

More than 30% of the cyberattacks that occurred against educational institutions involved the use of stolen credentials. Crafty threat actors have many methods of stealing and compromising passwords, such as through social engineering attacks, password spraying, and brute force attacks, to name a few. Choosing unique, hard-to-guess passwords for apps and sites is imperative, as is knowing how to spot the signs of common attacker tactics like phishing.

Communicating online

Identifying reputable websites and apps isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Today, cybercriminals have plenty of tools at their disposal to craft trustworthy-looking communications, such as fake websites and emails designed to steal data and funds from unsuspecting users. Talk with children about how to spot a potentially malicious website or email, and encourage them to communicate their concerns to an adult.

Just as a fake website can be hard to recognise, identifying an online predator is often equally challenging. That’s why children must be careful about whom they interact with on digital platforms and avoid sharing any personal information.

8 Internet safety tips for students

Good cyber hygiene is critical for all internet users, especially for students who are more susceptible to being taken advantage of or targeted by online cybercriminals.

Below are eight key internet safety tips to share with students of all ages:

  1. Use a secure connection: Look at the URL bar in your favourite browser. Is there a small lock symbol to the left of the URL? If so, that’s good news, as it means you have a secure connection to whatever site you’re visiting, helping to keep your information safe.
  2. Choose strong passwords: Create passwords that are easy to recall but difficult for others to guess. Never include sensitive or personally identifiable information (PII)—such as your birthday, phone number, or address—in your passwords. Instead, use seemingly random combinations of uppercase and lowercase letters, symbols, and numbers. Remember to use different passwords for every account you own.
  3. Enable multi-factor authentication (MFA) when possible: Using MFA offers you an extra layer of protection against stolen passwords, and it’s easy to implement. MFA confirms your identity by adding another step to the sign-on process, completed through physical or mobile app-based tokens. With MFA, even if your password is compromised, this ensures that bad actors can’t access the sensitive information they were after.
  4. Keep software, tools, and systems updated: Keep your devices and applications updated with the latest software and security patches.
  5. Review and understand privacy settings: Reading the fine print may sound boring, but it’s vital to staying safe online. Reviewing privacy settings for the apps you use helps you better understand how the creator of the app will use your data and what control you have over those choices.
  6. Know how to identify suspicious links: Does that link to free music or free games look strange? Don’t open it. Suspicious links can be dangerous, as they may contain malware or other malicious content. And as the saying goes, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
  7. Be careful of what and where you post: Once information is shared online, it can often be hard to remove it, and anyone can see it. Don’t ever share your personal information, and think carefully before sharing photos, videos, and other content, knowing that it will likely “live” online forever.
  8. Be cautious of who you meet and talk with online: You may think you know who you’re conversing with on the internet, but the reality is that it’s easy for others to pretend to be someone other than the person who’s actually behind the screen. Be careful about what you share with online contacts, and don’t ever agree to meet up with an online contact in person, no matter how well you think you know them. Tell a trusted adult if an online contact says or does something that makes you uncomfortable.
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