Explaining infosec magic to kids

Magic! It’s the basis for countless children’s stories filled with adventure and excitement. It’s also how many kids think cyberspace works. There’s nothing like seeing our child’s reaction when the slight of a magician’s hand produces marvelous results. However, as cyber professionals we know the Internet is no illusion. A technical understanding of their digital lives is a crucial life lesson for today’s young generation.

If your kids are like my daughters, they ask a lot of questions. I mean a lot. Why does it rain? How did they draw that cartoon? Why can’t I do that? How did they get the filling in my Twinkie? Some I can answer and others require a search using my smartphone. Yet, when it comes to their questions about technology it’s often easy to just say, “It’s magic!” Which is a fun and exciting answer, however my girls are at an age where I realize that explaining the wonders of their world is crucial to developing their critical thinking skills and build a foundation of knowledge which will span their lifetimes.

One day, while watching my daughters playing games on my tablet, I realized that their belief in digital magic was shorting their learning. They didn’t know the first bit about what was going on inside a device. I wasn’t introducing the girls to the basic concepts of a digital life nor was I inspiring them to ask more questions about science, technology and math. They were not as inquisitive about their digital environment as they were about their physical one. That got me worried because in their lives the digital and physical worlds are becoming one. And the sad part, technology is a topic where I have answers.

After talking with my InfoSec peers, I believe many of us often feel that our kids don’t truly know what Mom or Dad does on the job because we find it difficult to explain our work to most adults, sometimes even our bosses. Or we think that our kids won’t understand because we decide it’s too complicated for them. Maybe it’s easier to let kids think that in tech we wave our magic wands at code or pull rabbits out of servers. Except, we all know that’s not an accurate reflection of our industry.

Yet, we continually worry about our kids experiencing the not so nice side of cyberspace. But we’ve never explained to them how it really works. One has to ask, how can a child consider a cyber threat to be real when they believe in cyber magic?

It’s time we move our conversations with kids beyond training dragons or learning wizardry. It’s time we begin explaining cyberspace for what it is—a place that’s anything but a fairytale, a place with real consequences instead of predictable happy endings, and a place that’s based on actual systems and programs developed by real people. We can do this by using our professional expertise to explain how the Internet works. We are in a position to teach our kids a basic technical vocabulary that will deliver benefits for the rest of their lives. While technology may seem like magic, it is not. That’s the distinction we in InfoSec must help children understand.

The next time you’re with a child who is experiencing the magic of downloading a website, here are a few Q&A’s designed to explain digital illusions.

  • How did that website get into your device? Everything in cyberspace travels by packets. Whether it’s the website you’re downloading or an email that I might read, everything needs data packets containing little bits of information in order to work.
  • What’s a packet? Packets carry bits of information though the Internet. When all the packets arrive in your device they organize themselves into things like the website you want to see or a game you want to play.
  • Where do you think the packets come from? Your device asks servers all over the world to send the packets you need to see a website. Servers are special computers designed to share information by responding to requests like yours by sending packets.
  • How do packets get to us? The server sends packets to the IP address assigned to your device. Just like our home has an address so people know where to find us, your devices have IP addresses so packets know where they are going. Packets often travel different paths across cyberspace. Just like there are different streets we can drive to school, packets take different paths so they can avoid traffic jams in cyberspace!

I hope these questions are just the beginning of talking tech talk with the kids in your life. My cyber colleagues—we find ourselves in an incredible position change the perception of magic, to teach how technology works. We can do this by explaining it to our kids, their friends and even other parents as a part of our every day conversations, in hopes they will share their new knowledge with someone else. By accurately answering questions about technology in terms a child can understand, we in InfoSec can benefit the digital lives of everyone around us. It’s time to cast our spell by saying, “Let me tell you why it’s not magic, it’s technology.”

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