Tips & Advice

Back-to-school cybersecurity 101

Nancy Nunziati, 14 August 2019

Learn your school’s policy regarding students’ computers and mobile devices, warn your kids about phishing, and be wary of public Wi-Fi

Tablets, smartphones, laptops, adapters and Bluetooth devices weren’t always on back-to-school shopping lists. 

But there’s no way around the fact that technology is a much bigger part of our childrens’ lives than it was for most of us when we were their age. Whether your child is ready to matriculate into middle school, or flying the coop for college, there’s a good chance they’ll be taking devices with them.

Consider peppering in some of these cybersecurity best practices among the morsels of wisdom you offer before the first day of school: 

1. Familiarize yourself with the school’s device policies

This one’s more for parents (and college students). Most educators acknowledge and accept technology’s role in learning, but not all educational institutions take the same approach to device management. 

Some public schools prioritize putting laptops or tablets in the hands of every student free of charge. Others might rent out devices, or allow students to bring their own devices for learning purposes. 

Whatever the case, make sure you’re up-to-date on the school’s device policies. For starters, find out if there are any restrictions on device usage to avoid confiscation. If the school provides the device, ask if you’re responsible for installing cybersecurity software, downloading certain apps, having a data backup, etc. 

Also, it never hurts to ask the school what they’re doing to keep kids safe online (here are our security recommendations for school admins, in case you’re curious.)

2. Phishing: The other ‘stranger danger’

From email accounts to social media, your children will inevitably come into contact with phishing scams at some point. These manipulative or deceitful messages trick users into giving away sensitive information and downloading malware. 

Social media platforms and email providers have gotten better at flagging and quarantining phishing attempts, but it’s still important to make your children aware of their existence, and how to spot them. That means encouraging them not to engage in conversations with strangers online. If they’re into online gaming or active in another digital community, they may already be in contact with strangers. In that case, tell them not to give out personal information. Tell them to avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from unknown senders. Caution them against responding to emails that use urgent language (“Reset your password NOW!!”) or are rife with misspellings.

Phishing scams like fake coupons and untrustworthy links in emails promising “big savings” are prominent during back-to-school shopping season, so be vigilant. 

3. Have a backup

Say your high school student gets ransomware on his or her laptop. First, you can tell your kids not to pay the ransom in this situation, because there’s no honor among thieves. Who’s to say they’ll keep their word?

You can tell your kids to create backup versions of key documents. And if they don’t know how, help them. Encourage them to save important documents (college essays, homework assignments) to the cloud. Google Drive, Apple, DropBox and others offer free and inexpensive secure storage options. 

4. Public Wi-Fi: Beware all ye who enter here

Make sure your kids know that “free” Wi-Fi isn’t always free. Your elementary school student probably won’t bring her laptop to the cafe down the street to write a research paper, but your 16-year-old who recently got her driver’s license might. 

Man-in-the-middle attacks and fake Wi-Fi hotspots posing as say, a Starbucks network, can easily lead to data theft. Encourage your kids (and other adults for that matter) to stay off public Wi-Fi. And if they must use public Wi-Fi, encourage them to use a virtual private network (VPN)

5. Keep your passwords to yourself

That’s passwords, plural. Each account your kids create will ideally use a unique password, preferably one that’s 15 characters long and contains numbers and special characters (read more about password best practices here).

We realize that’s a lot to remember, but if one password gets hacked, then all the passwords go with them. We recommend using a free password manager to make it easier to keep track of them. 

Other password tips:

  • Caution against sharing passwords with friends. 
  • Encourage kids to lock their devices with a fingerprint or face scan when the option exists. 
  • Consider physical passwords – that is, cable locks to keep laptops secure. 

6. Have a frank talk about cyber responsibilities

Parents often give children devices so they can do their homework, work on school projects and collaborate with other students. Digital devices also help students learn more about technology, which has become integral to functioning in society. 

Still, kids will use their devices for entertainment and other functions that extend beyond school. Parental-control tools can help you blacklist certain content and in some cases even log call and text history. But they aren’t substitutions for communicating the risks of poor security hygiene. 

Caution your kids against sharing information with strangers online the web. Make them aware of the signs of cyberbullying on social media, and encourage them to notify a responsible adult if they see it happening. With middle-schoolers and high-schoolers especially, remind them that anything they share via text or social media can easily end up on the internet, and once it’s there, more often than not, it’s there for good. 

It may be a touchy or even contentious subject, but technology is part of our world, and we need to encourage its responsible use among our children – in school and in everyday life. Don’t shy away from having these conversations with your kids.

7. Install antivirus protection

It almost goes without saying, but if you add a digital device to your list of back-to-school supplies, add a reputable antivirus, too. Avast offers free and paid versions of its device-protection software. 

We also offer free mobile security solutions for iOS and Android devices.