He did what…? A lesson in cyber awareness

A few weeks ago, a ten-year-old hacked into his school’s intranet and began deleting installed teaching programs. He thought it was funny. His teachers did not. They could not get their heads around how or why a child could or would do such a thing. The kid thought he was clever. And he was. He outsmarted his teacher as she went about her usual teaching practice, oblivious to the idea that every time she logged into the school intranet or the Department of Education’s portal, she was being ‘spied on’ by a little boy with playful intentions.

Did the child do the wrong thing? Absolutely. Was he aware of the implications of his actions? No, not at all. He had no idea that what he was doing was hacking, or that in the real world under the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Act 2011, it is a criminal offence. Nor, I’m sure, did he have malicious intentions. He just thought he was being clever.

So who was to blame for this action? And does it really matter? To answer the first part of the question, the age of legal responsibility in this country (Australia), is ten years old. And if the perpetrator is between 10 and 14 years old, malicious intent needs to be proven before a child can be successfully prosecuted. So, of course, the actions of this particular child were not his fault.

Where then, does the responsibility lie? Is it with the teacher? Partly. But not wholly. Teachers find themselves in the midst of an educational paradigm shift in which their charges, the students they teach, are digital natives. Digital natives are the generation born into the world of technology; they have never lived without it, so have a much greater understanding of technological concepts and uses. Their teachers—Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Ys, have had to adapt to a rapidly emerging digital reality, with varying degrees of success.

There is no denying that teaching has changed. Where once teachers depended on hard-copy textbooks, and wrote on ‘blackboards’ then ‘whiteboards;’ they now use ‘smartboards,’ which are wholly interactive and double as projector screens connected to the Internet  and on which teachers can ‘write,’ ‘highlight,’ ‘click’ and ‘drag,’ and instantly source information about anything, anywhere, in whatever format they want. Students enter kindergarten already knowing how to navigate the digital landscape. And they are enthusiastic and keen to explore the limits to which technology can take them.

Schools have an increasingly crowded curriculum, and for the teachers among you, you know that means more and more responsibility for educating children about almost every facet of the world we live in. But even if the curriculum was restricted to just ‘reading and writing’ — the way students read and write has changed.

Literacy once meant being able to recognise, interpret and make sense of ink-based words on a paper-based page. Not anymore.   Literacy now is about learning to recognise, interpret and make sense of the digital environment. This includes sourcing, consuming, creating and disseminating content in multi-modal formats. And a large part of doing this successfully is understanding how to do it appropriately—and safely.

The digital platform is constantly evolving, so just when (or even before) a teacher or school (or education department) finally gets their head around an emerging technology or concept—it changes. Again. It’s no wonder teachers struggle to get a handle on the way in which children engage with technology when it’s second nature to the students.

So again, where does the responsibility lie? Can we hold parents responsible for the actions of the aforementioned child? Maybe. Partly. Recently I asked a group of six-year-olds who among them had a computer in their bedroom. I was astounded to discover that more than half the class had an Internet connected device (laptop, tablet, PSP, DSI, Wii, Xbox, Playstation, etc) that they used, unsupervised, in their rooms. These kids were surfing the web and viewing YouTube videos by themselves, probably unbeknown to their parents. It’d be akin to sending kids out to play on a busy highway; except parents are more aware of the dangers of playing in traffic.

And therein lay the issue. Parents may not always be aware of the risks and dangers of allowing children unsupervised access to the Internet  It’s not just about the potential for kids to use technology destructively as in the hacking incident, it’s also about predators and fraudsters and other adult criminals who float around cyberspace waiting for unwitting cyber-participants, particularly vulnerable (unsupervised) young people whom they can draw into their webs of deceit and destruction

Yes, parents AND teachers definitely need to be more aware of the way in which their children use technology. So if both are partly responsible, but neither is wholly to blame, then what is the answer? How do we address this issue effectively? We’ve all heard the old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ and it is very much the case here.

Government has a role to play in developing policy and legislation to keep up with the rate of technological change, and community has a role in educating its members about the risks and dangers— in equal balance to the joys and benefits—of the digital world. Education departments have a responsibility to educate their teachers, employers have a responsibility to educate their workers, media has a responsibility to educate its consumers, and parents have a responsibility to educate their children.

So back to the second question, ‘does it really matter?’ Of course, it matters. It matters a great deal. We should be looking at the issue of cybersafety education in the same way that we approach road safety education. We don’t allow children to cross the road as soon as they can walk. We hold their hand and walk with them until they are teens. And by that stage they have participated in lessons about road safety every year at school, they’ve seen posters and TV programs, they’ve entered competitions, played games and done quizzes and colouring-in sheets, they’ve watched TV ads and cartoons—all reinforcing the road safety message and teaching them the ‘what, when, where, why and how’ of staying safe on the road.

This is what we need to be doing with cybersafety. And it is the responsibility of all of us to educate ourselves so that we can educate our kids.


Khyiah delivers cyber awareness seminars to parent groups, Meta-Literacy seminars to teachers, and cyber-safety seminars to students. She is also currently writing a teaching program for students in Stages 2, 3 and 4 (Year 3 – 8) addressing these issues. If you would like to book a seminar for your group, or pre-order a teaching unit, contact Khyiah here.