I grew up in the 90s, before Facebook and sexting and Snapchat, but there were still plenty of ways to communicate with my friends (oh, the days of away messages on AIM!) and even more ways to get into trouble online.

AOL Start Screen

I was too much of a goody two shoes to really do anything bad, but one day I ventured into a chatroom full of people much older than my sixth-grade self. I definitely had some very NSFW conversations with some boy in CA and I thought I was so cool for doing this clearly mischievous thing. (I don’t even think I truly understood the meaning of most of what I was saying; it just felt so bad ass to ask a/s/l and sign in under the screenname hotlipz21.)

But then my dad walked into the room where the family computer was. I panicked: Quick minimize everything!

Penny.

 

My face flushed with shame. I’d been caught. He obviously knew something had been going on but surprisingly didn’t say anything. Instead he left the room and waited. I waited, too, tears springing to my eyes, wondering what was going to happen. Had he seen the screen? Had he seen what I’d typed? Did he know that I was hotlipz21??

Timone and Pumba AHHHHH!

 

I logged out of the chatroom and walked into the living room, my head hung Charlie Brown style. He was sitting on the couch, reading. I got into his lap, crying.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I did something bad,” I said, sniffling.

“What did you do?”

I mumbled my response, and honestly I don’t remember what I said or how much I confessed. I think the thing I was most concerned about was whether or not he was going to tell my mom.

 

“I won’t tell your mother, but you have to promise me you’ll never do something like that again.” He went on to explain the dangers of child predators and stranger danger and made me feel even worse than I already did since I hadn’t considered any of those risks. Then he closed by saying, “I want to trust you to be online. So don’t give me any reasons not to.”

Don’t give me a reason to not trust you.

What a powerful message. It meant that he did already trust me, and that I would have freedom to use the internet as long as I didn’t break that trust. His words stuck with me for years and kept me from doing anything terrible or embarrassing online through my teen years. I’m sure that if selfies and Instagram and Twitter were around then, my dad’s message of trust would have kept me from doing anything too stupid – though I’m sure I’d still be prone to a duckface or two. 😛

At the end of the day, much of our activity online is about trust. Do we trust this website to protect our process our credit card data? Do we trust the cloud to backup our music? Do we trust Facebook to not steal our images? Do we trust our kids to not download an infected app to our smartphone? Do we trust ourselves to behave responsibly, ethically and securely online?

 

Trust is an important part of any family security discussion and should be part of your family security policy. While you can’t give kids carte blanche to go do whatever they want, do respect their privacy and if you say you’ll trust them, show that you trust them – or rather, that you will trust them until they give you a reason not to! Create a set of rules that you want your kids to follow and have them sign a contract or pledge saying that they will follow the established rules and understand the consequences for if they don’t. Set guidelines for what apps are allowed to be on their mobile devices. Consider joining the social networks they want to participate in and friending them – not to spy on them but be actively engaged in their lives online. Have periodic check-ins where you talk about their online activity, their friends, the apps they’re using. You don’t want to interrogate them but rather have an on-going dialogue full of mutual respect and trust: they can trust that you won’t go snooping through their private files if you can trust that they won’t engage in irresponsible or sneaky behavior.

 

My toddler brother using the computer

(Of course, every family dynamic is different and not every child can be treated the same. My younger, sneakier, brother had different rules than I did when it came to what we were allowed to do online and how much time was allowed to be spent at the computer. For example, I was allowed to have my own computer in my room at a younger age than he was. It wasn’t until he was more mature and proved he was capable of making ethical, responsible decisions that he was given the same freedom. You may need many conversations and a few iterations of a family security policy to find one that works for you.)

Most of best security practices come down to two things: common sense and thinking before we act. Convey the importance of those two things to your kids and get them to understand that their actions online carry weight and have offline consequences. Trust them to understand the things you tell them. They can handle it. They have to in order to practice safe infosecs.

Ashley Schwartau

Director of Production & Creative Development at SAC
After more than 15 years of working in this industry, she’s finally accepted – and embraced! – the fact that she’s a security awareness expert. She is also a book-loving, travel-blogging, French-speaking Gryffindor who is unapologetically obsessed with her cats.