Aug 30 2023

How to Address the Digital Threats That Students Face in Online Education

It’s never too early to teach students how they can help shield their school from cyberattacks.

Adopting digital learning in K–12 comes with potential threats to students. These threats can range from relatively innocuous digital distractions to cyberbullying and online predators.

Despite these risks, schools must continue to embrace educational technology. Digital learning is essential to prepare students for the requirements of living and working in the modern world. Additionally, digital tools provide a wealth of personalization and collaborative and accessible learning experiences for students and teachers.

The Most Common Online Threats That K–12 Students Face

Given the many benefits of online learning for students, striking a balance between digital learning risks and online safety is the goal. Some of the main threats students encounter in an online learning environment include:

Click the banner to learn how to protect K-12 students online from malicious actors.

Digital distractions: Students may find it tempting to engage in nonacademic activities during school learning hours, such as playing games or browsing social media. This can negatively impact their academic performance.

Inappropriate content: Internet access may expose students to inappropriate or explicit content. Exposure to such material may not only harm a child’s psyche but also raise compliance issues for the student’s school.

Cyberbullying: Students may be subjected to cyberbullying through social media, messaging apps, shared documents, online games and forums. Online harassment can have severe emotional and psychological effects on a targeted student. According to recent studies from the National Bullying Prevention Center, approximately 1 in 5 teens have been involved in cyberbullying, either as a victim, a perpetrator or a witness to such behavior.

DIVE DEEPER: What are KOSA and COPPA, and how do they impact student data privacy?

Online predators: Students can also be targeted by online predators who may attempt to establish inappropriate or harmful relationships with them.

Phishing and scams: Students might fall victim to phishing emails or fraudulent websites, which could lead to compromised personal information, identity theft or threats to the school’s network.

Unauthorized access: If students don't properly secure their devices or accounts, unauthorized individuals might gain access to their personal information and school-related data.

Charlie Sander
Perhaps the biggest problem with K–12 cybersecurity protections today is the simple lack of awareness of just how exposed district information systems and data are.”

Charlie Sander CEO, ManagedMethods

How to Help Students Avoid Deepfakes and Misinformation

Ideally, students should start learning about digital threats as soon as they begin using computing devices with internet access. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, schools should integrate digital citizenship into the kindergarten or first-grade curriculum. The organization advises schools to teach young learners to distinguish between online and offline activities, understand the importance of privacy and promote responsible communication in digital environments.

Some schools have digital citizenship classes in place that have improved by leaps and bounds over the past few years due to increased online exposure after COVID-19. Schools should also strive to teach older students to recognize deepfakes and misinformation.

Given how frequently students use social media, they should be encouraged to critically evaluate the authenticity of the content they encounter. According to Statista, 74 percent of social media users in the U.S. have been exposed to content that platforms have labeled as false — and this is just content that was flagged as such. Imagine how much questionable content has slipped through the net.


The percentage of K–12 schools, among 400 respondents to a global survey, that reported being victims of a ransomware attack in the past year

Source: Sophos, “The State of Ransomware in Education 2023,” July 2023

Better Protect Students Online Beyond Traditional Cybersecurity

Perhaps the biggest problem with K–12 cybersecurity protections today is the simple lack of awareness of just how exposed district information systems and data are.

At this point, all districts should have a firewall, web filter and anti-phishing safeguards (usually through Gmail or Outlook). Many think these three security measures are enough. Unfortunately, most districts don’t realize that their security measures are insufficient until after an incident.

Here are three ways schools can reduce risks to students:

First, district leaders and technology teams need to adopt multilayered cybersecurity measures such as defense-in-depth and zero-trust approaches. While these security strategies do not prescribe specific tools or vendors, they are comprehensive approaches that can help keep organizations of all types and sizes more secure.

RELATED: Learn why more schools are considering zero trust.

Next, end users should all know that they have the power to help keep their schools safe. Students should be taught how to identify and report potential phishing emails or online scams.

Finally, district leaders and cyber experts tend to focus on reducing cyber risks for higher-level users, such as superintendents and business managers. However, students and their school-provided accounts are also a target for criminals. Many incidents start with a compromised student account — whether via a phishing email, brute force attack or credential exposure — and then spread further into the district’s information systems. So it’s imperative for IT teams to keep student accounts safe.

It’s deeply unfortunate that schools need to put so much of their limited resources toward online safety for their students. However, with the cyberattacks that schools and individual students are facing, we can’t ignore the problem.

By providing comprehensive cybersecurity awareness and digital citizenship training, combined with tools and processes to secure data and protect students, we can create safer online learning environments for our community.

Daniel de la Hoz/Getty Images

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