Scottish cybersecurity consultant, Wendy Goucher, is on a mission to teach children as young as five about online safety. Her recently-published book, Nettie in Cyberland has been flying off the virtual shelves and has already reached No.2 on Amazon’s best seller list of books for child safety.
As children and young people increasingly use technology and engage online, informing them of the potential dangers they face is critical.
Earlier this year, a report by the NSPCC found that children were becoming more exposed and at risk online, and the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have exacerbated the situation with many more finding themselves in danger.
The child protection agency also called on the government to accelerate the delivery of a bill aimed at protecting children online.
Ensuring that children are informed of basic practices from a young age could help cultivate an even more cyber-savvy generation; one which takes cybersecurity seriously and understands the risks associated with a connected, online world.
Nettie in Cyberland
The story takes a young girl, named Nettie, on an adventure in ‘Cyberland’, where both she and her trusty sidekick ‘Webby’ encounter challenges and dangers. Nettie in Cyberland acts as a means to introduce young children to the topic of cybersecurity and initiate a conversation about online safety.
Goucher’s inspiration for the book came in 2012, when she worked as an education specialist developing teach materials in the United Arab Emirates. Producing materials for children as young as five and six, Goucher found the best way to engage children was to use stories to pique their interest.
However, the pressure of the project itself, she reflects, stifled the creative process and it wasn’t until afterwards that she realised the power of storytelling and the positive impact a cybersecurity-related tale might have on children and young people.
“The project was under quite a lot of time pressure, which is hard when you are trying to be creative. But when the project ended in 2013, I found it hard to stop having creative ideas,” she explains.
After consulting with a colleague, the creative sparks begun to fly and the wheels were in motion to start developing the concept.
“I had a coffee with Jim Barker, a graphic artists we worked with a lot, and he drew ‘Nettie’ and came up with the names too, The only part that I already had clear in my head was Webby,” Goucher says. “I wanted Nettie to be safe during her adventures.”
The cybersecurity sector have been highly supportive of the idea and Goucher has been inundated with positive feedback and comments from her peers.
The book has also been well-received by both parents and children alike – so much so that there is already a growing demand for a sequel. In January this year, Goucher hosted a focus group in Denny, near Stirling. Overwhelmingly, the feedback was positive.
“Although most of the children were slightly older than the target group, they said they liked the story and found Nettie and Webby to be fun characters, they also liked the story and the way it stopped for a chat in the middle,” she says.
“The conversation seems to start with ‘this is great, it is a really important tool’ and quickly go to ‘what are you doing in the next book’, so that is nice,” Goucher adds.
To date, the feedback online has been positive and underlines the importance of creating resources which both engage and inform children and young people.
A positive outcome of the book thus far has been to make both parents and children more aware of how they use devices such as mobile phones. Goucher believes that some parents might not be approaching the topic of online risks in the most effective way, and thinks education and guidance will work better than reactionary measures.
“While a first reaction might be to take a device away, but especially with young ones we need to also help them learn how to be safe.”
“Threats to themselves from the internet are a very hard thing for a child to understand. Just like the threat of being knocked down crossing the road. With road safety, as soon as children are facing forward in their buggies we are telling them to watch for the green man as this is the sign they will be safe to cross”.
Treating issues such as cybersecurity, or the use of technology, in the same fashion will help develop the same processes and practices to keep children safe, Goucher suggests.
As with crossing the road, ultimately as children get older they’ll begin to take the reins themselves and have a clear-cut understanding of the risks and appropriate responses.