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Growing Up with Cyber Wallpaper by Sheri Donahue

Children today are not just exposed to technology; it is part of their lives. From the baby monitor and the nanny-cam to the video game consoles, online classes, and hoverboards, it is not just an enhancement to their lives as it was when we first learned about it. Technology is more like wallpaper to them. It is always there in the background and so much a part of their environment that they do not even notice. It’s like oxygen, invisible but required.
Very often, when in a waiting room, on an airplane, or on a long car trip, parents will hand their cell phones to their children to keep them busy and quiet. Or, if they planned, they might have a tablet or video game packed and ready.
We have all seen the advent of technology and have watched its exponential growth. It continues to change the way we work, play, bank, shop, and even obtain healthcare. It makes our lives easier and more efficient. As we experienced over the last year and a half during the pandemic, technology helped us maintain parts of our lives in ways we could not have in earlier generations.
However, it also means that threats to our families are changing. When we were children in the second half of the 20th century, we knew that if we were home, we were safe; safe from bad people who would do us harm. We did not grow up with any dependencies on technology but for the dinner bell perhaps or the streetlights coming on to signal us when it was time to come in for supper. We rode our bikes in the summer, read books, only had three or four television channels, and used encyclopedias to look up information.
Today, though, four walls and a door are no longer enough to protect our children. The “bad guys,” whom our parents warned us about and whom we now worry about hurting our children, use that same technology that has made our lives easier to violate the safety and security of our homes persistently and in most cases, silently.
As parents, we are responsible for paying our bills, keeping our children fed, clothed, healthy, and educated. We plan for our retirement, put money away for college, and make sure we have quality family time. Many of us will find ourselves in that “sandwich generation” in which we are caring for aging parents as well as our children.
With all this on our plates, how can we also be expected to be cybersecurity experts?

The Many Vocations Of A Parent
As children grow and become independent, we want to encourage curiosity and self-confidence. Unfortunately, overconfidence can be dangerous.
When children learn to walk, they become little wanderers, explorers of their own “new world.” At the same time, parents are running to the local hardware store to buy cabinet door locks, electrical outlet plugs, and baby gates for stairs. Why do we do this? While we want our children to become independent and learn about the world around them, they do not know the dangers of the harsh cleaning chemicals, electric shock from the outlet, or falling down the stairs. But mom and dad do. That does not mean that parents must be chemists, electricians, or carpenters to understand the dangers lurking in otherwise innocuous places in their homes. By the same token, parents need not be cybersecurity experts to protect their children online.
Just as a child will explore their new world when they learn to walk without regard for the dangers they do not understand, they will jump on the internet and explore without understanding the dangers online. It is similar to the feeling we had as children that you are safe at home.
The problem is that growing up with technology, the confidence and level of comfort that a child has is often much greater than that of a parent. The result is that parents and children erroneously believe that a child knows what they are doing; it really is a digital divide. However, as the responsible adult, parents must understand the basic level of security, just as they know not to drink cleaners, stick a fork in the outlet or roll down the stairs.
The cyber equivalent of baby-proofing your home when your toddler starts walking is a combination of technology tools, policies, and education — the same recipe as the cybersecurity program at your office.
“Technology tools” include locking down your internet by changing the password on your router and making sure it is password protected. Ensure you are using anti-virus software on all computers.
“Policies” as they relate to home cybersecurity means regularly updating your anti-virus, operating systems, and software programs to ensure all patching is up to date. Additionally, set parental controls on smart TVs and monitor your child’s activity online, including the information they post on social media and who they have friended. Just as you wouldn’t want your kids hanging out with the wrong crowd, you should also think about those that you may not actually see but with whom there is an online connection.
“Education” is just what it sounds like. Talk with your child about being safe online. Teach them to use strong passwords and not to use the same password for everything. Educate them on what they should not post on social media and what is ok to post.
Make sure the conversations are open and honest and that they are comfortable talking with you about their safety and security. You would not tell your child that they are not allowed to drink the cleaning supplies under the sink without telling them why – it could kill them. Similarly, telling your child that they are not allowed to accept friend requests from people they do not know without explaining why will not teach them how to protect themselves later in life when you are no longer in a position to monitor them.
Ideally, you can be reassured that when your child is grown and leaves home, he or she will not be drinking bleach, putting metal objects in the outlet, falling down stairs, or sharing personal information online with someone he does not know.
Be confident in yourself as a parent. You do not need to be an expert in anything to protect your child. Just use common sense, stay informed, and be engaged in your child’s life and all will work out fine. ◙

About Sheri Donahue

Sheri Donahue is an engineer who spent 20 years working for the US Navy. As Program Manager for Security & Intelligence, she managed a portfolio of Intelligence and Intelligence-related projects for the Navy, Department of Defense, and other Intelligence agencies of the US Government fusing science and technology with intelligence to provide knowledge solutions to fight the war on terror.

Sheri is President-Emeritus of the InfraGard National Members Alliance and the Cyber Conflict Studies Association.
Currently, as Co-Founder & CEO of Commonwealth Sentinel Cyber Security Consulting, she works with local governments, small businesses, and non-profits with a mission stating that cybersecurity is for everybody, not just the big corporations.

Sheri received her BS in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University in 1990 and served on the Purdue Engineering Alumni Association Board of Directors. She has been an invited speaker for industry and technology groups on many topics including public-private partnerships, cyber security, and undergraduate and graduate students on creative career planning.

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