For K-12 school districts, providing students with internet access is a double-edged sword. Why? Think about the positives and negatives:
- The good: It brings kids closer together, connects them to key resources, and puts an innovative twist on the educational experience. Plus, it makes learning way more fun.
- The bad: A swarm of cyber risks is just one click away — and no, we’re not only talking about social media or online gaming. Globally, almost 3 in 4 kids are exposed to online threats each year, including cyberbullies, malware, inappropriate content, and more.
Does the good outweigh the bad? Fortunately, the answer is usually yes — especially if you practice internet safety. In this guide, we’ll walk you through the basics of online risks and share the safety tips you need to avoid them.
Internet safety explained
In simple terms, internet safety — also called cyber or online safety — refers to the policies, processes, and best practices people use to stay safe online. It involves following actionable guidelines and safety tips for understanding responsible internet use and protecting yourself from the dangers of the digital age.
Online safety is considered one of the most important aspects of “digital citizenship.” Simply put, a responsible digital citizen takes ownership of their online activity and steers clear of potential threats when accessing the internet.
Why is internet safety important?
Staying safe online is paramount, especially for a young person. Why? Here are a few of the most important reasons:
- Data breaches: As mentioned, online security and safety are intertwined. Let’s say a child downloads an attachment from an unknown sender and accidentally infects their domain with malware. That could easily spread to other accounts, eventually impacting the entire infrastructure — all because of a simple mistake.
- Identity theft: One wrong move could expose highly sensitive, personal information to the public. Whether due to a security breach or not, data loss may result in a child or parent suffering identity theft. Worse yet, a young person may not even realize their credit is tarnished until they’re an adult.
- Mental health: From explicit social media posts to graphic violence on YouTube, unregulated internet access can expose kids to potentially harmful material. In some cases, this could negatively impact student mental health.
- School safety: There are numerous ways unsafe internet browsing could eventually jeopardize school safety. A hacker might obtain sensitive information, such as class schedules and door codes. They might find a student’s home address and attempt to meet them there. In other cases, students may be searching for topics related to suicide, self-harm, or school violence.
Common internet safety risks
Knowing is half the battle when it comes to online threats. So, to help raise awareness for internet safety risks and how to avoid them, here are a few of the most common culprits:
The Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) defines the term “inappropriate content” as anything that’s too obscene, violent, or sexually graphic for a young person to consume. This also includes illegal material, such as pornography or pirated movies.
Content such as that is not only unacceptable in school but could expose you to other cyber risks. For example, when a child downloads a movie from an unauthorized website, they might unknowingly infect their device with a virus. Likewise, schools may be held liable for illegal material stored on their owned and operated systems.
Additionally, CIPA — which all K-12 districts are obligated to follow — also broadly defines inappropriate content as anything that lacks “educational value.” So, you can reasonably expect social networking, online games, and other classroom distractions to fall into this category. Though not nearly as dangerous as the risks listed above, these are still top of mind for many K-12 IT administrators.
Sadly, cyberbullying is a growing issue in the United States. In fact, teachers rank it the No. 1 online safety issue in their classrooms.
But what does cyberbullying look like? Where does it happen? According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of American teens have experienced one of the following forms of online harassment:
- Offensive name-calling
- Spreading of false rumors
- Receiving explicit images they didn’t ask for
- Constant asking of where they are, what they’re doing, and who they’re with by someone other than a parent
- Physical threats
- Having explicit images of them shared without their consent (i.e., “revenge porn”)
These incidents happen in many places. Although social networking sites and text messages are perhaps the most common, kids increasingly use school-provided cloud apps to bully their classmates. For instance, a child may write mean comments about someone in a Google Doc shared by their peers, or even send embarrassing videos of their target over email.
Not everybody is who they say they are on the internet. Unfortunately, some students are quick to trust strangers online, not realizing their intentions are more nefarious than meets the eye.
Scammers often use a social engineering tactic called “phishing.” In short, they fool the victim into divulging sensitive information (such as a credit card number or password). Then, they crack into their account, change their credentials, and steal as much data as they can. Sometimes, they even get away with loads of cash.
Phishing scams run rampant across the web but are especially dangerous in K-12. In fact, between 2016 and 2020, the median amount of money stolen from school districts via phishing campaigns was $2 million.
Normally, students and staff encounter this risk over email. That said, they may also receive suspicious messages through social media, SMS, or even over the phone.
Viruses spread like wildfire online, infecting any information systems and devices they can until finally being eliminated. Malware — which means “malicious software” is the most widely recognized example. Schools may experience a malware attack if they happen to click suspicious links or download unsavory files that secretly contain a virus.
In recent years, a particularly devastating brand of malware has rocked the K-12 landscape. Known as ransomware, this threat works the same way as its counterpart, except it’s designed specifically to steal and block access to critical data.
For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) infamously fell victim to a ransomware attack in 2023. Hackers stole over 2,000 student records in the attack, but when LAUSD refused to pay the ransom, they leaked it all online.
Perhaps the most dangerous risk of all is that of the online predator. It can’t be overstated: You can’t always know for a fact that you’re talking to a trusted adult. As difficult as it is to think about, the internet is littered with predatory individuals with devious intentions.
According to estimates, there are over 500,000 online predators active every single day. They often attempt to communicate with kids over social media, online games, or in a chat room. One of the most common tactics they use to manipulate and groom exploited children is called “sextortion.” They threaten to expose embarrassing personal information if the child doesn’t exchange sexual images or agree to meet them in person.
Internet safety tips for students and staff
The internet may be dangerous, but it isn’t all bad. As long as your school district follows a few best practices, you can keep your students safe online.
Not sure where to begin? Here are some internet safety tips to help you get started:
1. Require strong passwords
Accounts are a staple of the digital age. By extension, so are login credentials. That means password security is paramount to internet safety and security.
The problem? Most people — children and adults included — use basic, easy-to-guess passwords. Even worse, they repeat the same one for numerous accounts. If hackers break even one account, it won’t be long before they crack the rest.
That’s why it’s important to have strict policies about password strength. As a rule of thumb, require your users to have long passphrases that involve a combination of random numbers, letters, and symbols. These are tougher to guess and aren’t based on personal information you might find online.
2. Distinguish safe websites from bad ones
Modern web browsers, like Google Chrome and Safari, have native security tools that tell if you’re in unsafe territory online.
Look for a padlock icon in the address bar. This tells you the website uses an HTTPS connection, which means it’s encrypted, and therefore safer to use.
Avoid entering personal information into any website that lacks this protective layer. Scammers sometimes use falsified websites that impersonate legitimate companies. So, even if it looks the part, the connection may not be safe. Of course, you can also leverage a content filter to block malicious websites entirely — but more on that later.
3. Learn how to spot phishing scams
If you’ve ever looked at your email’s spam folder, you’ve likely noticed how many messages never make it to your inbox. More likely than not, a lot of these unwanted emails contain malware and phishing.
Staff and students alike need to recognize potential scams. Here are some of the telltale signs:
Messages that provoke a sense of urgency (e.g., ACT NOW! YOUR ACCOUNT HAS BEEN LOCKED!) or promise to give you money.
Communications that appear to be from a trusted source, but want you to re-enter a password, verify a birth date, or confirm a credit card number.
Frequent spelling and grammatical errors.
Suspicious links and attachments.
4. Teach social media privacy
Social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat are simply how people connect in the digital age. However, oversharing can become a significant safety risk.
Ensure students understand that what they post online could come back to haunt them. Sharing personal information, for example, could give hackers enough clues to guess a weak password. Even worse, posting your location could pose an immediate threat to your physical well-being.
Have students review their privacy settings on whatever platforms they use. Provide instructions so they know exactly where to go and how to control who sees their posts online.
5. Monitor online activity
Keeping students safe online is easier when you’re supervising their behavior. Unfortunately, many districts lack visibility, especially when it comes to cloud apps like Google Workspace or Microsoft 365.
Fortunately, tools like Cloud Monitor allow you to identify online risks right away. For example, not only can you detect a possible phishing scam in Gmail, but you can also find out if an online predator is attempting to arrange a meetup with one of your students (yes, this has happened before—more than once).
Moreover, Cloud Monitor uses keyword and content-scanning capabilities to pinpoint signs of self-harm, suicidal ideation, cyberbullying, and school violence. By alerting you to a potential risk, you can investigate the incident and promptly resolve the situation.
6. Block and remove unauthorized apps
Students and staff regularly install unauthorized 3rd party apps without prior consent. Sometimes they may be harmless online games, but they could also just as easily be a cybersecurity incident waiting to happen.
With Cloud Monitor, you’ll know almost immediately if someone’s downloaded apps without permission. Better yet, it helps you figure out exactly which users were involved and can automatically take action based on your pre-determined policies.
7. Use a web filtering solution
Perhaps the easiest and most immediate way to avoid online risks is to block them entirely. K-12 school districts are required to use tools that filter inappropriate content — but did you know this can also support online safety and security?
With the right solution, you can provide internet access to your students and staff without worrying about malware, distractions, scammers, or predators. Building a list of unauthorized sites can take time, but if you work with a vendor like ManagedMethods, you can automatically block over 300,000 websites right out of the box. Plus, our Content Filter solution can be customized to match your district’s needs.
Want to learn more? Explore our browser-based Content Filter today.