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Could your child be hacking the Pentagon? How children are being drawn into cybercrime

In this week’s episode of Tech Shock, Julia Davidson, Professor of Criminology at University of East London discusses the growing phenomenon of cybercrime, and how young people are being drawn into committing serious offences – without fully understanding the consequences.

What is a cybercrime?

The term “cybercrime” can cover a whole range of offences around attacks on computers – from hacking individuals or organisations, to cyberbullying, online sexual abuse and online hate. 

Professor Davidson says the UK is “leading the field in terms of legislating in these areas”. However, things become complicated by the fact that different jurisdictions define (and prosecute) cybercrimes in different ways. 

This can lead to significant legal consequences (and even custodial sentences) for young people who may not even have realised they were committing a serious crime.

Blurring the boundaries 

There is a blurring of the boundary between legal and illegal activity online. For example, many of us would happily admit to digital piracy – unlawful streaming of music, video or other content – when this is in fact a crime.

When it comes to hacking, Professor Davidson says young people often feel a sense of dissociation from the implications of what they’re doing: “Sat behind a screen, it’s different to perpetrating a crime out on the streets, in the real world. 

“There’s a sense of being detached, that it’s not that important. However, in the most serious cases, young people could find themselves being arrested, and even sentenced to time in custody. 

Reaching the next level

So what pushes young people towards hacking? This is a very new area of research: Professor Davidson is in the process of surveying 8,000 young people across eight EU countries, to explore exactly that. 

However, she has so far found that peer groups are more significant than potential grooming by adult gangs. 

Young people move from gaming into hacking, encouraged by their peer network. “It’s not usually financially motivated for young people. It’s often about peer engagement and online reputation.”

The crossover from gaming can further blur the boundaries. “In interviews with ex-hackers, [they’ve] told us that for them it’s about the challenge – they see it in some respects as a game, moving through levels to reach ever-higher levels.” 

This curiosity is compounded by the ready availability of information needed to hack. “That information is all freely available on the internet, so perpetrating fairly small-scale hacks is fairly simple from that perspective – the ‘how-to’ guides are out there, you don’t necessarily need to access the dark web”.

Consequences as well as coding

While lessons in coding are becoming commonplace, Professor Davidson says we need to go further: educating young people on the consequences of activity online, and embedding a sense of digital citizenship. 

This goes for parents and guardians too. While a child’s tech skills and high IQ – common traits among young hackers – are rightly a cause for celebration, parents and guardians need greater awareness and understanding of just what their little computer genius is getting up to online. 

We know that young people’s online skills are “often way ahead of their parents’”, but when it comes to cybercrime, Professor Davidson calls this knowledge gap “quite problematic”.

It’s important to raise awareness without causing alarm, or risk alienating their child or teen by making them feel their privacy is being invaded. Parents should “try to be at least aware of what their children are doing [online] and have a conversation with them.” 

By taking an active interest in their child’s online life, parents can help them build digital resilience, and learn how to navigate the blurred boundaries.

To hear the full discussion, listen to episode 28 of Tech Shock: 
“Hacking the Pentagon from teenage bedrooms"

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