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Digital Citizenship

What Is Internet Safety and Why Is It Important to Teach?

June 12th, 2019 | 12 min. read

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Internet safety is the practice of following actionable guidelines, understanding modern technology, and protecting your digital devices so you can defend against malicious parts of the online world.

It’s one of the main parts of a strong digital citizenship program in any school.

That’s because the internet provides near-instant satisfaction when looking up answers to questions, instructions on how to accomplish a task, and more.

But it’s also packed with potential dangers. Malware, phishing, scams, drive-by downloads, misrepresentation, and old-fashioned lies hide in every possible corner online, just waiting for an opportunity to strike.

So how can you prepare children and teens to successfully navigate this minefield of information?

It’s not easy — but the first step to teaching internet safety is understanding it yourself!

What Does Internet Safety Entail?

Internet safety requires you to have a firm comprehension of the internet, what’s on it, how it’s used, and how it operates.

It also emphasizes understanding the lesser-known areas of the internet, like code, webpage interactions, and secure connections.

In general, you can break down internet safety into two categories — behavior and knowledge.

If you’ve never had to teach internet safety before, we recommend starting with seven behavior ideas that work in middle school and high school:

  1. Verifying someone’s identity
  2. Verifying a link is safe
  3. Identifying an online scam
  4. Protecting privacy
  5. Creating and using passwords
  6. Identifying cyberbullying
  7. Becoming a good digital citizen

Internet safety is truly an expansive space, and it requires a knowledge component as well — the kind of knowledge that helps you use safe technology.

That includes:

  1. Understanding code
  2. Using ad blockers
  3. Identifying secure connections
  4. Using virtual personal networks (VPNs)
  5. Understanding your data and its value
  6. Knowing when your data is being collected
  7. Understanding how your data is used to advertise

Because these two lists are pretty long, we’ll dive into each one separately.

Let’s start with making safe choices!

Making Safe Choices

The most important part of internet safety is learning how to make safe choices.

That requires a lot of background knowledge, but it’s all actionable information that your students can use any time.

Using the points below, you can teach your students how to stay safe online by making the smartest and best choices available.

1. Verifying someone’s identity

The internet makes it a snap for anyone to falsify their identity.

All it takes is an email address, made-up name, and social media profile. With that done, any person on Earth can impersonate someone else.

Students can verify identities by searching someone’s name in search engines and multiple social networks — especially LinkedIn.

Why is LinkedIn special?

Because it’s one of the hardest social profiles to fake!

LinkedIn essentially requires you to upload a full-fledged resume to join the network. Any LinkedIn profile with minimal information is immediately suspicious.

Facebook profiles with no friends, Twitter profiles with no followers, and Instagram profiles with only selfies are also suspicious.

Essentially, if someone seems very into themselves but doesn’t have the online friends to show for it, that person may be an imposter! 

2. Verifying a link is safe

In addition to verifying the identity of a stranger, students also need to know how to “read” a URL or link.

You can do this a couple of different ways.

First, students should understand the letters that start a URL — HTTP and HTTPS.

The easy to way to think of these is that HTTP is unsecure and HTTPS is secure.

That means the URL goes to a trusted and well-maintained website, as opposed to a throwaway website that’s being used maliciously.

Second, students should also know about hovering. Hovering is when you place your mouse cursor over a link (without clicking it) to see the link embedded in the text.

99% of the time, these will be the same URLs. But 1% of the time, you may see that a link shows a different URL when hovering with your mouse cursor.

Don’t click these links! They may be deceptive, especially if the text of a link looks like you’ll go to one website but the embedded URL will send you somewhere else!

3. Identifying an online scam

Online scams often take the form of unsolicited emails, instant messages, or text messages.

Basically, they’re messages that come from unknown sources that tell the recipient to do something, like click a link.

As tempting or promising as the offer may be, students need to know not to click the link!

Simply opening the link could subject the student’s computer to malware, viruses, ransomware, or some other villainous software.

4. Protecting privacy

Privacy is another key area of understanding where students make crucial choices.

2.4-protecting-privacyIn the past, it was common for teachers to warn students not to publish any personal information online. This included their names, addresses, phone numbers, and more.

Today, every social network asks for a name, email address, phone number, and more!

So where can you draw the line?

In the event your students choose to create social media profiles, it’s crucial that they’re careful about publicly posting their personal information.

They should hide their phone numbers. Their email addresses shouldn’t be searchable. In some networks, students may even be able to remove themselves from search results entirely, protecting them from random friend requests and online invasions of privacy.

As a rule of thumb, students should always keep their addresses and contact information secret, even from social networks that ask for them.

5. Creating and using passwords

Passwords are used in every account-based service online, from social networks to banks.

As a result, they’re crucial in maintaining the privacy and integrity of any student’s information.

This opens the door for you to teach your students about best practices when creating passwords.

Strong passwords tend to be:

  • 10+ characters long
  • Include letters, numbers, and other characters
  • Unrelated to personal information
  • Easy to remember
  • Hard to guess
  • Unique

Creating good, unique passwords is a challenge for anyone — especially if they’re not tech-savvy. 

If you’d like your students to practice passwords before making them, you can use the LastPass password tester in your class.

6. Identifying cyberbullying

Because social networking and messaging is easier than ever, it’s also easier to harass people as well.

This unfortunate side-effect of the internet is called cyberbullying, and it’s been a hot-button topic in schools for years now.

Cyberbullying is essentially insulting or harassing someone via the internet. While it’s mostly discussed in the context of children, teens, and young adults, it’s shockingly prevalent across all age ranges.

The major takeaway for students is identification. Insults, jokes at someone’s expense, and repeated harassment are all callsigns of cyberbullying.

The effects can be devastating on the victims. Social media has a tendency to permeate our lives, and that’s amplified for teens and pre-teens who are highly involved in their social circles.

To prevent feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and worse outcomes, it’s crucial for students to know cyberbullying when they see it so they can do their part to stop the harassment.

7. Becoming a good digital citizen

Good digital citizenship means students know how to make safe choices when using the internet.

It also entails a general knowledge of technology, how the internet works, and warning signs that something may have gone wrong. 

In that respect, making smart choices on the internet is just the first step on the road for your students as they become responsible digital citizens. 

The next key area of internet safety is using — and understanding — safe technology.

Using Safe Technology

Using safe technology helps protect a student’s devices.

Understanding safe technology helps protect a student’s life

While this requires more information and a thorough digital citizenship curriculum, it also gives your students the essential knowledge they need to protect themselves from digital pitfalls for the rest of their lives.

You can start by talking about code.

1. Understanding code

Code is the back-end, written text that developers use to create webpages and webpage elements.

With it, developers can tell a webpage to show a certain image at a certain point. They can denote where a video should go and whether it should play automatically.

The options are nearly limitless!

Most of the code on the internet is in a language called Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML. For the most part, HTML is a safe coding language that has very little opportunity to harm someone’s computer or steal someone’s information.

Other languages include Java, CSS, Python, Ruby, and more. These languages all have their strengths and weaknesses, and some of them can be used maliciously.

Thankfully, these languages don’t show up too often except for in special online applications.

The best way for students to learn about code is to learn how to code. Once students use the coding languages themselves, they’ll have a sharper idea of how those languages can be used online. 

2. Using ad blockers

Ads are everywhere these days. Unfortunately, very few ad providers actually check their advertisers to ensure they’re providing clean, safe ads on webpages.

This is where a lot of websites run into trouble. It’s possible for them to unknowingly serve malware or virus-infected ads that prompt what’s called a drive-by download.

That means someone just needs to open a webpage and their browser will start downloading viruses, spyware, malware, or ransomware in the background — and nobody knows until it’s too late!

The best thing to do is to show students how to use ad blocker extensions in common web browsers, like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox.

Yes, ads play a vital role in helping companies keep the lights on.

But so few companies perform quality assurance checks on their ads for malicious code, and cybercriminals will always strive to stay one step ahead of the people who may catch them.

As a result, the best solution is for your students to use ad blockers!

3. Identifying secure connections

Secure connections are essential to ensuring someone’s personal information goes directly to a website and isn’t intercepted, decrypted, or misused by malicious third parties.

Thankfully, secure connections are easy to identify. Just look for the HTTPS at the beginning of a website’s URL.

The S indicates that the website uses something called secure socket layers, which is essentially an extra layer of security that protects information as it goes from a student’s computer to the website’s servers.

You can also teach students about virtual personal networks, or VPNs. These are encrypted micro-networks that add even more security to information that’s transmitted from someone’s device to another area.

With HTTPS websites and an always-on VPN equipped to a device, students can protect themselves from almost all of the internet’s dangers when it comes to transmitting data.

4. Using virtual personal networks (VPNs)

Speaking of VPNs, it’s important to understand how they work.

A VPN establishes a secure connection between someone’s device and a proxy location. In addition, the VPN creates a digital “shell” that protects that connection.

So if you imagine a standard internet connection as a copper wire, a VPN internet connection would be like that copper wire covered in a thick layer of rubber for protection and waterproofing.

In addition, VPNs prevent internet service providers (ISPs) from tracking a lot of your browsing activity online. This is important because it’s legal for ISPs to sell anyone’s browsing information to marketing firms to create targeted advertising.

VPNs stop that dead in its tracks. It’s just a safer way to use the internet! 

5. Understanding your data and its value

So why should you and your students care that ISPs, social networks, and third-party operators have access to your data?

Because in today’s fast-paced, information-based world, personal data is a valuable commodity.

Packages of data are sold among companies just like any other product. The most recent example of this is the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal that revealed enormous breaches of personal privacy and dozens of security concerns.

Essentially, every student in your classroom is valuable to an advertiser. Because of that, their information has value for the social networks, ISPs, and other companies that collect it.

The less a student tells these websites about themselves, the less likely they’ll be to have their information packaged and sold to the highest bidder.

6. Knowing when your data is being collected

How do you know when your or your students’ data is being collected?

Because of a European law called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), any website that has traffic or customers in Europe must disclose when someone is being tracked.

The method of this tracking is often through something called a “cookie,” or a unique identifying code that makes one person stand out against the millions who may visit a website.

So while American or Asian websites don’t have to disclose their tracking information by law, they still do it to accommodate their European usership.

As a result, you’ll often see websites with popups that say they’re currently tracking you.

7. Understanding how your data is used to advertise

Finally, it’s essential that students understand how their data is used to advertise to them.

As we established before, third-party agencies will collect and sell anyone’s information for a price. Then, the people who buy that information can use it to deliver targeted advertisements to individuals through different means.

Have you ever talked to your friend about a brand or product only to open your Facebook account and see an ad for it right away?

Have you ever texted someone about a book you wanted to read and then saw it as an ad at the top of Amazon?

This isn’t an accident. Advertisers have never had more access to information about you, your students, or anyone else in the world.

As a result, they have a very sharp idea about what they can offer people.

If you or your students see ads on social networks or shopping websites, remember that they’re not there by accident!

Those ads are placed through a complex series of identification and delivery systems. Even if they show something that you want, it’s smartest not to click on them since you also don’t know where the ad may lead! 

Teach Internet Safety as Part of a Digital Citizenship Curriculum

Learning and practicing internet safety is critical for your students to stay safe in a technologically-driven world. But without the right curriculum resources, your students are at risk of not learning essential information that will help them become good digital citizens.

When you teach the internet safety concepts in this article, you’ll be well on your way to ensuring your students are prepared to work in the digital world.

But how can you be sure you meet your standards for internet safety and other critical digital citizenship topics? Consider adopting a comprehensive curriculum system such as iCEV. 

The iCEV curriculum includes material to help meet your standards for internet safety, digital citizenship, and more.

Visit the curriculum page to learn more about topics you can teach with iCEV to decide if it’s right for your classroom.

Visit the iCEV Business Curriculum Page