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For Military Children's Health Month, focus on cyberfitness

Servio Medina is acting chief of the Defense Health Agency’s Cyber Security Division Policy Branch. (Courtesy photo) Servio Medina is acting chief of the Defense Health Agency’s Cyber Security Division Policy Branch. (Courtesy photo)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — Protecting systems and data from cyberattacks is part of our everyday work routine. Devices are password-protected, for example, and regular cybersecurity training is required. But off the job, are we applying workplace cybersecurity diligence to personal devices – devices to which our children have easy access?

With April ushering in Military Children’s Health Month, it’s a good time to focus on family cyberfitness: the safety and security of our personal devices and electronic information, and also our personal well-being when we’re online.

The Defense Health Agency’s health information technology team offers information to ensure cyberfitness at home, including a five-day plan: Day 1, add strong passwords to devices; Day 2, clean out mobile apps; Day 3, protect stored information; Day 4, share information wisely; and Day 5, beware of health information fraud.

We at the DHA care about family cyberfitness because innovations are enabling Military Health System beneficiaries to have greater and easier access to electronic health records, communication and prescription tools, and more. Without cyberfitness, these health IT innovations might lead to information being misused by mistake or on purpose.

Further, I believe cyberfitness is a readiness issue. The DHA’s mission is to provide a medically ready force and ready medical force to combatant commands in peacetime as well as war. How can our force be fully ready if personal information has been stolen or family members are being bullied online?

According to a survey of parents by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, children between the ages of 8 to 18 spend an average of seven and a half hours online every day at home, school, and public spaces. Further, mobile devices are available to children ages 8 and younger in about 98 percent of U.S. households. Pause on that for a moment – 98 percent! Practically everyone, young or old, can click into and connect with data, information, and other people.

Many of us probably are aware of funny-in-hindsight stories about children unknowingly making online purchases with simple “buy now” clicks. But when personal information is unwittingly shared, the repercussions can be more than financial.

Military families, in particular, often face challenges with cyberfitness. Frequent moves and deployments upset routines and social connections. Some parents may become so distracted by the basic details of re-establishing households that they don’t pause to consider what their seemingly positively occupied children may be doing online.

Parents themselves may be preoccupied with electronic devices. If younger family members seem fascinated with these devices, perhaps it’s because their parents have set an example with their own frequent use.

Ease of access to technology has coincided with troubling increases reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the number of suicide deaths among young people ages 10 to 19, and also in the number of adolescents who’ve experienced at least one major depressive episode. A study of teens from 2010 to 2015 found that those who reported spending several hours daily on mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, were also more likely to report mental health issues.

It’s important for parents to talk with children about cyberfitness frequently and candidly. Begin the conversations when they’re young, with age-appropriate messages on topics like creating strong passwords, safeguarding personal information, and turning to a trusted adult immediately if they encounter anything online that makes them uneasy. Empower them to make smart decisions; help them understand that cyberfitness is a daily priority.

As the old Graham Nash song goes, we need to teach our children well.


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