Knowledge. Innovation. Connection.
These might seem like typical 21st century buzzwords – after all, they pretty much sum up where we are on the “You are Here” marker on that giant mall map of time. But far from just empty words that people say to sound trendy, these three traits capture the essence of what powers one of the most important and complex tools mankind has ever dreamed up – the Internet. In the same way that it’s super difficult to envision how it could possibly be that we have, on average over 24 feet of intestines wound up inside our bodies, and that if you fold a regular piece of paper 40 times, it would reach to the moon, it’s can be pretty hard for us to envision the scope of the interconnected cables, routers and frequencies used to bind all the world’s networks into one cohesive unit. But for better or for worse (mostly better), it’s massive and complicated, and it’s here to stay.
As we mentioned above, the Internet is a tool. And just like tools can be used to build something amazing that benefits mankind, the way a hammer can help build a home, any tool can be used to destroy as well. As much as the Internet connects, educates and builds, it can be used in ways that are less than positive. At the end of the day there is no denying the tremendous advantages of the Internet and the knowledge, innovation and connection it fosters. But it’s certainly a good idea, as a parent, educator and responsible person to know about some of the most common disadvantages that are out there and what you can do to keep you and your family safe.
The issue – Unprecedented Dissemination of Knowledge
Remember when doing research for a school project or report meant going down to the library, finding a librarian to take down some dusty references books off of high up shelves and sifting through reels of microfiche? Those days are long gone.
Nowadays all you need to do to find out information about, say, The War of 1812 is say “Hey Siri, tell me about The War of 1812” or “ Okay Google, The War of 1812”. Finding information has never been easier and people have never had so much access to knowledge. We are surrounded by ways to learn, from amazing educational websites, like Codeacademy.com, which can teach you how to program anything from HTML to JQuery to Python, without ever stepping foot into a computer science college department, to CGP Grey’s channel on YouTube which has quirky educational videos about anything you can think of, from how germs spread to how to become the Pope. Then you can learn the fundamentals of basket weaving, French cooking or how to master SEO on Udemy.com or coursera.com. And with the amazing ZoneAlarm blog you can educate yourself on how to use this incredible advancement we call the Internet while remaining as secure as possible. Clearly there is so much more to learn, but if we tried to even cover one little corner of the world of knowledge available to be mastered, we would be here basically forever. Suffice to say, with all the knowledge out there, anyone can learn anything new at any time in their life.
On the other hand, just as there is so much good to be learned, there is a whole lotta bad stuff to be learned out there too. Unfortunately, it’s just as easy for kids to learn multiplication and division with an educational game like MathBlaster, it’s almost as easy to find other sorts of information as well. Kids can access pornagrophy and other age-inappropriate content with frightening ease. Even worse, certain internet-based creeps and crooks try to bait children onto inappropriate sites where they can wind up getting themselves involved in very dangerous activities.
But it’s not only kids that run the risk of overexposure. Have you ever typed in the wrong URL, only to wind up on a very different site than you had anticipated, one that you just wish you could erase from your brain’s cache? The reality is that with the Internet, there is no such thing as limited information and this can have tremendous ramifications. The good news is that you can easily enable safe browsing mode from most browsers which will help protect kids from accessing age-inappropriate content. It’s not entirely foolproof so this might just be one of those times where you have to bite the bullet and talk to you kids about all the nasty things out there and how to stay safe.
The issue – Convenience vs Invasion of Privacy
One of the most incredible aspects of our digitally centered lives is the fact that we can shop, bank and even work from the comfort of our pajamas or when it’s simply too cold/hot/rainy to go outside or when it’s 2:00 am and all the normal people are asleep. There is a clear reason that shopping on Amazon and other ecommerce sites is on its way to surpassing the traditional in-store shopping experience – Just bypass the crowds, forget about sifting through endless racks of clothing or tech items.To get what you want, just click a few buttons, and voila, it will be on its way to you in no time. And think about waiting for your bank statement to arrive in the mail, or waiting on line in your actual bank – who has time for that?? Banking online has become a fixture of our lives because it’s so easy and convenient.
You might also be lucky enough to work from home or at least conduct some of your work responsibilities from home or your mobile device. Thanks to the Internet, you can answer work emails from your daughter’s ballet recital, essentially being in two places at once (that might not be the best thing either but we digress). We are almost spoiled rotten with all the ease the Internet has introduced into our lives.
But all this convenience comes at a price. Hackers are always waiting and watching – and they have lots of different methods they use to lure in naive victims. They might create spoofed e-commerce websites, waiting for people to land on them and enter in credit card info, and they’ll try their darnedest to strip security layers off of HTTPS-protected banking websites or use malware to access your logins and passwords. They also harvest social security and credit card numbers using vulnerabilities in operating systems and would just love to sink their claws into your corporate email accounts and databases, which if you ever work from home, you likely have access to from your laptop or mobile device.
Also, because working, shopping and banking from our devices is so ubiquitous, even when we know better, there exists a tendency to become lazy and sloppy. By forgetting to log off websites, storing passwords, using easy-to-remember but also easy-to-hack passwords and failing to use two-factor authentication because it’s time consuming to set up and use on a regular basis, we invite hackers to our devices. Unless you have some strong security measures and habits in place, all your private information isn’t really quite as private or safe as you think it is. Using a strong anti-virus program with a firewall like ZoneAlarm, in combination with doing a real security habits assessment every now and then will help you stay ahead of hackers.
The issue – Social Media
One of the most prominent hallmarks of our always-connected world is social media. Whether or not social media is actually a positive thing is up to interpretation, but there really are a lot of good things associated with it. By connecting ideas and people far removed from each other, social media makes a big world a little bit smaller. Until social media came along, moving away, graduating university, starting a new job or any other move meant saying goodbye to the friends you collected along the way. But today no one ever has to really “lose touch” with people (though sometimes you really might prefer it as such…). Families and friends can be spread out across countries and generations, yet still be in constant communication with each other via Facebook. And with social media you can learn what life is like in Sri Lanka from your new Facebook friend Kalani and help your buddy Ben find a new job on LinkedIn. On SnapChat friends post short-lived photos to keep all their contacts updated in real time of their whereabouts and experiences. With Pinterest, you and your best friend can develop ideas and plans to remodel your bathroom regardless of whether your friend lives 2000 miles or two block away. Simply put, social media connects people despite distances and obstacles.
But social media comes with its own host of disadvantages as well. On social media, things are not always what they seem. With the high level of anonymity you can be anyone or anything you want and so can anyone else. Your new friend Kalani might actually be a 55 year old creep named Mike from New Jersey and the job you found for Ben might be nothing more than a hoax or a work-at-home scam. With SnapChat or Instagram, images might contain malware-filled links or may direct you to infected websites. On social media people find themselves victims of all sorts of scams, ranging from identity theft, to click bait scams, to banking scams and more all the time. Children are a clear target on social media as they tend to make riskier moves without much thought. But the truth is, adults can fall prey easily too. Scam artists on social media are well-trained in the art of social engineering and know how to get what they want from you, whether it’s to download a virus, give over sensitive information or lure you into illicit activities.
It’s important to make sure all the privacy preferences and settings are configured as appropriate for your family and that your social media profiles aren’t public, which would mean that anyone could see anything you post. Here is how to set privacy settings accordingly for the most popular networks. It’s also a good idea to educate your family about social engineering so they know what to watch out for.
Regardless of what we think about it, the Internet is here to stay (pending sci-fi movie predictions of robot Armageddon, zombie takeovers or singularity) and it’s in everyone’s best interest to know that with all the good, there are some aspects that ain’t so grand. The more we know about how to tackle them and educate the people we love, the better off we will all.