Helping kids understand and avoid malware

I wonder how many schools that don’t have 1:1 programs teach kids about viruses and other malware.  When I look at the ISTE NETS, I don’t see an obvious fit – perhaps under troubleshooting in Technology Operations and Concepts? In a 1:1 school, especially in one using Windows as the primary operating system, helping kids understand malware is essential.  The real question is how do we help kids understand malware and related threats in a way that is meaningful enough to make it hit home while not being so frightening that it keeps them from exploring the tool beyond basic day-to-day assignments…

I spent a big chunk of my day yesterday doing the legwork.  Foolishly, I assumed that someone had already created some sort of kid-friendly video to explain this sort of threat and how to keep from becoming its victim.  I have to say that if someone has created it, they sure made it hard to find.

I found a pretty good video about computer viruses on Brainpop.  It might be useful for kids in elementary years to understand what viruses are, but it really doesn’t provide info about how kids commonly contract them on their computers or what to do if it happens.

Many of the videos currently out there are geared toward adults using specific antivirus products.  Much of what is on YouTube tries to tell people to tweak security settings and install specific apps which, especially in the hands of middle school kids, might cause more harm than good.

I also found a number of news pieces covering various threats over the years.  I toyed with the idea of showing kids some of these – just to give them an idea about how malware has evolved.  When I reviewed one of the videos, it occurred to me that the Unibomber-type “expert” interviewed and shoulder-pad-wearing journalist might be more humorous than anything for the kids…

So, what did I end up with?  I made a very basic PPT to guide my presentation – The Malware Menace (see above).  I began by asking kids what they knew about viruses.  To clear up some of the misconceptions, like how every undiagnosed issue on a PC is referred to as a virus, we began with a basic definition.  I shared my two most memorable malware experiences – a version of the Joke worm that corrupted my oldest daughter’s baby pictures and my many encounters with the Melissa virus, starting before most of my students were born.  This lead into a discussion of spyware, adware, and trojans – the sort of malware many of our kids encounter at some point.  The natural discussions came up – experiences on home computers, types of antivirus software they’ve used, etc.  This led to review of how to run scans using the tools we have on school computers (Panda and Windows Defender) and browser precautions (pop-up blocking, careful clicking, etc.)…  We also discussed numerous steps kids can take to avoid malware on their school computers.

When it comes to malware, I try to be a realist.  I know they can and do happen to everyone eventually, no matter what OS you’re using or how careful you are.  However, being careful (following precautions in the slideshow above and backing up data frequently), can lessen the impact.  I’m hoping this initial discussion was enough to provide a foundational understanding so that kids aren’t unprepared when/if an encounter with malware happens.

Next steps…  Maybe I should have some of my students work on authoring their own materials to create something more kid-friendly.  It would be nice to include info appropriate for multiple platforms and different hardware (phones, iPods, etc.)…


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