“Cyber Guardian” Cyber Responsibility Programme for Children

Chris Donnelly

The public are constantly under attack from hackers, propagandists, fake news and those seeking to exploit vulnerabilities.  Children and young people are a particularly exposed target. They are often targeted before they have developed an appropriate set of moral and ethical values to protect themselves from relentless online propaganda influences.  

So, while formal computing education and training is improving, we urgently need to develop additional programmes for young people from 8-16, focussed on online behaviour. Budgetary pressure means that we cannot expect the state to solve this problem alone. The Institute for Statecraft is developng a programme to meet these needs, the “Cyber Guardian” cyber responsibility programme for children.

Most governmental and private initiatives target people in their mi-late teens and older. For school age children the national curriculum is inadequate to ensure online responsibility. A variety of useful educational programmes/apps are available for teachers to employ, but breadth of coverage is patchy, the programmes are not coordinated or integrated, and many do not bring extra resources to schools. 

The Institute’s programme will deliver basic cyber responsibility education in an ethical framework to guide all children, their families and teachers, in the safe use of IT. The programme will contribute to fulfilling the national curriculum, but it is not a computing skills training course. For older children, the programme will develop a parallel chanel through the existing framework and structure of uniformed youth organisations. It will complement the existing and proposed cyber education in secondary schools, supporting and supplementing existing programmes, focusing on cyber defence and safety by building foundations for an understanding of cyber responsibility and a capacity for discernment. Other countries have introduced successful programmes to address these issues. Leading Estonian experts in Cyber Security Education have agreed to make their materials and expertise available to the programme

The programme will be evolutionary in nature. It will provide education in a benign and monitored environment, developing content, messages and story lines to create an awareness of the need to use IT responsibly. Material will be appropriate to different age groups / levels of emotional maturity or technical attainment, reconciling this with a school education system based on the age of the pupil. It will embed the education in a gaming process to increase its attractiveness and stimulate competitiveness. It will make a particular point of fostering interest and expertise in IT amongst girls to improve gender balance.

The programme will not focus specifically on how to operate IT better, rather it will improve children’s performance in the realm of Personal, Social and Health Education, which Estonian experience has shown to be the essential, fundamental basis for developing “Cyber Hygiene” – basic self protection to keep oneself safe in today’s social environment of which cyber is an increasingly crucial part for young people. This education, delivered as a constituent element of the national education system, provides a foundation for teaching children and young people (with and through their families and teachers) a total understanding of the consequences of their behaviour. This, in its turn, will provide the basis for education to dissuade children and young people from descent into anti-social behaviour, such as bullying and sexting, and cybercrime – a specific goal of this programme.

In addition to creating the ethical framework for IT use and educating and training children in the techniques of secure IT use, the programme will educate children to discern truthful information from propaganda and disinformation. This is of increasing importance for all children, but is of special relevance to reducing vulnerability to radicalisation amongst children from ethnic communities.This feature of the programme is informed by The Institute’s extensive work over the past decade with young people within ethnic communities to achieve social integration, and by the Institute’s current programme to track, understand and counter disinformation from Russia, Daesh and other malign sources.

Understanding the psychology of children and their relationships with their parents and teachers is crucial to a successful educational outcome. To this end the programme will engage not only with the children but also with their teachers, parents and, where possible, other family members, including them in the education process. It is most important to ensure that they understand how to reinforce the messages, support the learning, and avoid counter-productive reaction when their children talk of their on-line experiences.

A long-term function of the programme will be to support the development of a world-leading reservoir of potential cyber talent among children and young people (initially 8-16 year olds, but with the potential to educate even younger children as the programme evolves). To this end it will include an assessment process to identify and support exceptionally talented children.