We must do more to protect our children from cyber crime

We must do more to protect our children from cyber crime

by Liam Kerr
article from Monday 5, March, 2018

RECENTLY I spoke in a debate on cyber security, with a particular focus on young people’s experiences. What was striking was how little I, as an average, reasonably tech-savvy parent in my early 40s, actually knew about what is going on for young people online.

It seems I’m not alone: the Royal Society of Edinburgh suggested in 2015 that 30 per cent of Scots lack ‘basic digital skills’. According to the Scottish Business Resilience centre, 42 per cent of Scots use the same password for multiple accounts and many didn’t even change password when advised to after a security breach.

When it comes to businesses, the Association of British Insurers’ “SME guide to Cyber Insurance” states that whilst 74 per cent of businesses say cybersecurity is a high priority, only 52 per cent of businesses have the basic technical controls outlined in the Cyber Essentials scheme.

A UK Government survey estimated that in 2014 81 per cent of large corporations and 60 per cent of small businesses suffered a cyber breach with an average cost between £600k-£1.15m for large businesses and £65k-115k for SMEs.

So to the young people. There is a game called Roblox (pictured), which claims to have more than 40m users, in which you build a kind of “lego” virtual world.

Apparently it is one of, if not, the most popular games played by children from 5 to 10 years of age, in the UK.

According to the headmaster at a primary school in Coventry, who wrote a warning to parents recently, over half of their 5-6-year-old pupils and over 70 per cent of their 6-7 year olds were playing it.

The issue here, or one of them, is that there is a “chat” feature which, according to the app, is ‘the best place to imagine with friends’.

According to a Primary head in Manchester who also felt compelled to write to parents, there is no way to screen contacts or disable the messaging.

According to the Coventry study, most of the children surveyed had online friends in ROBLOX that their parents didn’t know about and had received many in-game messages from ‘strangers’.

Many of the children said their accounts were ‘maxed out’ meaning they have 200 online “friends”. One report from Middlesbrough tells of a woman who spotted her eight-year-old child had connected with more than 50 strangers after only three weeks.

In the study, the students aged 8-9 particularly suggested that a lot of the messages are inappropriate. The report talked of a concerned mother in Sunderland whose 8-year-old daughter had received a message asking, 'Hello cupcake, do you want to meet up?'

And last year the Hull Daily Mail reported that former rugby league star Iain Morrison’s young son was receiving messages from strangers asking him to perform sex acts in “virtual bedrooms”.

In many, perhaps most, cases it appears the children aren’t telling their parents.

The study also considers that it claims to be a 'Kidsafe' site, which monitors use by under-12s. However, the Manchester headteacher was able to set up an account, register as a three-year-old and then play 18-certificate games, including Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Halo. Anecdotally, I understand that this playing of violent and inappropriate games, often long into the night, can have significant behavioural consequences and impacts on school attainment. Computer games come with an age recommendation for a reason.

This is also a world which didn’t exist when I was growing up. In the debate we heard about guidance teachers who tell of issues that are resolved by home time escalating online overnight and coming back in through the school doors the next day, increased in intensity and seriousness.

Childline has reported a 12 per cent rise in cyberbullying counselling sessions whilst the national health service has reported that cyberbullying increases the risk of suicide by 30 per cent. The debate also heard of a girl who after weeks of flattery, cajoling and wearing down of resistance, sent a photograph of herself semi-nude over Snapchat to a much older boy. According to the speaker, within half an hour or so, the photo was saved on the phones of multitudes of people in the area. She could see it being screen-grabbed and shared. The girl was just 11-years-old.

Finally, as this is about awareness, I believe it crucial to include the apparently growing instances of, and indeed normalisation of, underage gambling through online gaming.

Recent Gambling Commission reports suggest that there are now 370,000 children between the age of 11 and 16 participating in gambling related activities in just one week, with as many as 20 per cent of boys claiming to have participated.

Worse, the Commission has also reported up to 31,000 underage classified ‘problem gamblers’ with many more suggested as ‘at risk’ of the dangers this industry presents.

During the debate, my colleague Finlay Carson mentioned a popular, easily-accessible mobile app as one of many manipulative games that play on psychological exploitation. Let’s call it “Sweet Smash”.

He tells me they use Game Play Loop psychology - whereby developers build in a repeating chain of events to establish an addiction-like attraction to the game, through the regular release of neurochemical rewards (dopamine) in the brain.

This is achieved through setting up the right play: win ratio, in order to cause the player to attach themselves in an addictive manner. Players are then susceptible to proposed purchases in order to continue that reward cycle and advance at the same rate through the game (solely determined by developers).

I understand that none of these principles are regulated and permit the potential exploitation of an age group susceptible to suggestion and manipulation.

So, what’s to be done? There is an economic impetus to developing IT skills, with an estimated 11,000 new IT jobs needed each year to meet current and future demand. Average median full-time earnings for tech specialists are 30 per cent higher than the Scottish average. Therefore, not just for our security, but also our prosperity, it is crucial that we get STEM teaching right in our schools and universities.

I am not convinced further legislation is required. Perhaps more awareness of the law e.g. that soliciting naked photographs or sending unsolicited photographs can be against the law. Or that, given that it is an offence to possess, send, make, take, distribute or show indecent photographs of children, a person taking the photo and the recipient is breaking the law. If it gets forwarded on, that recipient is also breaking the law.

Furthermore, we should ensure young people are sufficiently confident and aware that they refuse to be pushed into sharing images of themselves that they would not be happy to have shared widely. And to have the ability to report those who pressure them to do so.

We can support charities such as the Rotary peace project, which facilitates and supports school children through life-skills-based programmes that are delivered student to student. The goal of the organisation is to empower the next generation to develop their own ideas about the challenges that the 21st century produces, including about how to avoid making poor decisions online and make the right, but often the most difficult, decisions.

Perhaps above all, in my view, parents have a responsibility to teach responsible use of the internet and indeed monitor use of this technology. Cyber-resilience should be embedded at every age and stage.

Liam Kerr is a Conservative MSP for the North East of Scotland and shadow Justice Secretary

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