Good online habits start young

By Rachel Nuwer
September 07, 2018

This article is from the Summer 2018 issue of EQuad News magazine.

Don’t take candy from a stranger. Look both ways before crossing the road. Think carefully before giving away your mom’s credit card number online or granting every app permission to monitor your location.

Children under 8 spend at least a couple of hours per day interacting with digital content, yet online security has yet to join the ranks of other early lessons meant to keep kids safe. Realizing this, Marshini Chetty is creating interactive lessons and games aimed at equipping kids with basic skills for maintaining digital privacy. 

-h5eL9fA.jpeg“Kids as young as two are using touchscreen tablets these days,” said Chetty, a research scholar in the Department of Computer Science. “But while there are lots of studies and resources dedicated to teaching kids in middle school and above about privacy and security online, there are no resources geared toward younger kids.”

Chetty — whose research otherwise deals with things like understanding how adults manage software updates and developing methods to prevent third-party tracking — spotted the gaps in children’s online security through experiences with her own kids.

Chetty and her team then interviewed 26 children and tweens, some as young as 5, to determine their baseline knowledge of internet safety. From there they recruited eight children aged 8 to 11 to help co-design fun resources that deliver valuable lessons in online privacy and security.

“If you’re a parent teaching your kid anything from handwashing to dental hygiene, it helps to have books or games that talk about those things in story form,” Chetty said.

With user feedback in hand, Chetty and her colleagues — with support from Google — are developing a prototype game called Cybernaut, which they are further testing and refining with the help of their tween co-creators. Based loosely on the mobile game Doodle Jump, kids navigate a character through obstacles and are occasionally presented with multiple choice questions that can earn their character greater abilities or an extra life. For example, a child may be asked what she would do if an ad popped up asking for a credit card number. Or how she would respond if someone she didn’t know direct-messaged her.  

“Many kids coming out of elementary school are already having to unlearn bad habits, like using their birthdate as a password,” Chetty said. “We’re hoping to set a foundation early so kids know those skills from an even younger age.”