Children are spending more time online, chatting up strangers and sometimes giving them personal information that could put them in harm’s way. But a new collaboration that enlists a particularly troublesome cartoon feline is looking to teach kids a few things about cybersecurity.
Mobile devices have become the babysitters of the technology age, engaging and distracting kids in equal measure.
“Children are growing up with these things,” said Patrick Craven, Director of the Center for Cyber Safety and Education. “They practically have them in the crib with them and so they don’t see the danger that could be.”
Online strangers that come across as friendly and chatty might seem harmless to a child. But giving them too much information – a home address or the name of the child’s school – or even meeting with them, might invite cyberbullying or worse.
“It’s a very scary situation,” said Craven. “And that’s part of what we’re trying to make sure that they don’t do.”
Enter Garfield. Cartoonist Jim Davis‘ orange cat, going strong since 1997, is better known for pestering Odie the dog and eating and sleeping all day. But with the new collaboration between the Center for Cyber Safety and Education and Davis, Garfield has a new role, featuring in a series of comic books and educational kits to teach kids the basics of internet safety.
“The children know who he is,” added Craven. “They watch his cartoons, they see his movies. And so it was we thought a fun way to try to communicate to the children instead of doing a PowerPoint presentation.”
But since Garfield is hardly “one that you go to learn things from,” the series introduces a new character – Dr. Cybernia, a Siamese cat and a certified cybersafety expert designed to serve as a role model. And her being a woman “was not by accident.”
“We thought it would be a great way to encourage young girls to look into cybersecurity or the STEM fields as a potential career path for them,” he said. “And hopefully she becomes a role model for them.”
The first part of the series, the only one published so far, focuses on basic privacy precautions, such as what you are tagging and what not to post online – your name, where you live, where you go to school, or your password. It includes a comic book, a poster and other educational material.
“The very first cartoon deals a little bit with stranger danger,” explained Craven. “And there’s a character on there that they don’t know. And they think it’s a cat. And it turns out it is not a cat. So it tries to teach that.”
The poster teaches kids that online friends are not the same as friends they meet at school and that they should be approached differently.
“It doesn’t mean you can’t have online friends,” said Craven. “And it actually doesn’t mean you can’t meet with them, but you don’t go meet with them by yourself. Your parents go with you.”
Dealing with online strangers is the first installment of a dozen different topics. “We have a new one coming out every three or four months,” he said. “… All of them will be different – different stories, different messages, different lessons in them.”
The project also reaches out to parents and encourages them to learn more about cybersecurity and to reinforce what their kids have learned. All the material will be translated into different languages and used around the world.
“Right now, the first lesson is available just in English, but it’s already being picked up and ordered for usage around the world,” said Craven. “And eventually, we’re going to be able to put it into different languages so that children are able to hear it in their native language.”
The first translations will focus on French, Spanish and German. But the center also shipped educational kits to Kuwait, which expressed interest, for a pilot program.
“If they like it, then there’s a good opportunity they may help us in funding to put it into Arabic,” he added. “We are having conversations with the Brazilian government, so we could go into Portuguese quickly.”
Singapore is also on the list of potential recipients of translations done entirely in the native tongue. “First-graders, second-graders, they can’t read subtitles,” said Craven, “so it wouldn’t be of any use. So it’s got to be in their language. So there will be production costs and hiring the voices and things like that to translate.
The project is nonprofit, and the money generated from selling the kits, designed for up to 30 students in grades 1-6, covers printing and production costs for the various languages.
“Part of it will be dictated by who steps up and wants it and can helps us fund the translation for getting everything done because there’s a whole lot of material that comes with it,” he said. “It’s not just the comic book. There’s a cartoon, stickers, there’s posters, there’s letters – all these different things would all have to be translated. And the cartoon was actually kind of the cornerstone.”