Dinner table talk about passwords

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Thierry Plante, Media Education Specialist

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Matthew Johnson, Director of Education

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Andrea Tomkins, MediaSmarts Mom

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Joseph Romano, Teacher

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Andrea TomkinsIn my previous post I briefly mentioned the issue of passwords. The topic of passwords may not be as top-of-mind as sexting or bullying, but it’s important, and it definitely deserves some attention at home. Consider this the next topic for your dinnertime conversation.

Good vs. bad passwords

When our kids first ventured online and needed to create passwords, we tried to educate them as much as possible about the importance of making strong passwords. And since tweens and teens seem to understand these issues better when we give them real life examples, that’s exactly what we did. A weak password can lead to identity theft (Teenspeak translation: how would you like it if a total stranger stole your Facebook profile and pretended to be you online?), monetary theft, (translation: Can you imagine someone stealing money out of your bank account or buying stuff on Paypal without you knowing?). There seems to be a new story about password leaks and hack attacks in the news every week, even with big brands we know like Adobe and Target. It’s scary stuff.

So how do you create a good password? Good question.

The trick is to create a password that’s easy for a kid to remember and impossible for friends to guess or bots to crack. Experts say the best passwords are 8-15 digits and include a combination of letters and numbers. It’s a bad idea to use any current and/or easily discoverable information in a password such as your name, your pet’s name, and your birthday. It’s also a bad idea to use one password for everything, because if a password gets out (via a massive leak, like what happened to Adobe recently) it can mean your other accounts may be compromised. Also: QWERTY and12345 are not very good passwords. Neither is the word: PASSWORD. You’d be amazed at how often people use them.

I really like the idea of using a base phrase in a password, using the first letter from that phrase, and then adding on to that. So for example, take Mary Had A Little Lamb (MHALL), and then add what the password is for (i.e. Mac), and then a significant number on top of that, like an old classroom number. So in this case, the password to the Mac could be MHALLmac203. It’s even more effective if you add punctuation, so your password could become MH@LLm@c203. Voila! You have yourself a very good password!

What about sharing passwords with friends?

According to Young Canadians in a Wired World, a recent survey published by MediaSmarts, 59 per cent of students say they would “share the password to their social networking account, email account, or cell phone” with someone within their social circle. Personally, I don’t advocate my kids share their passwords with their friends, even if it’s their BFF. I’ve just seen too much drama, angst, and friendships come and go to trust that this is a good idea.

I asked my 13-year old about sharing passwords, and she told me that all her friends know her iPod password. “I don’t have anything to hide from them,” she said. But does she go so far as to share her Instagram and email passwords? The answer is no, she does not. (Phew.)

Should parents know their kids passwords?

According to the survey findings, younger students are more likely to share their passwords with their parents: 66 per cent of kids in Grade five would do so, but that number slides to 14 per cent by the time they hit Grade 11. It’s interesting to note that girls are actually more likely to share a password with their parents (45%, compared to 36% of boys). Boys in general are the least likely to share passwords with anyone.  

While I don’t advocate snooping in our children’s accounts, I do think that parents should know the passwords to their children’s devices and promise to use it only in extreme emergencies, no matter how old the child may be.

It’s important to talk about what that a potential emergency could look like. If my kid is a little late coming home one night, it’s not sufficient reason to read their texts. If she didn’t make it home from babysitting, well, that’s a different story. Regardless, this all needs to be said out loud so there’s a mutual understanding. Here’s more dinner table fodder for you: define the word “emergency,” and talk about the importance of respecting one another’s personal privacy.  

I asked my daughter whether she thinks we should know the password to her iPod, and this is what she said: “If I’m missing and police are looking for me, they can find out who I’ve recently talked to and see who’s recently contacted me. The iPod holds a lot of information that could be useful.”

You said it kid. Thanks for being so smart.

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