ICT in Education Main Headline

New Evidence of Social Education Influence on Safe Internet Behaviour

We are under constant and profound social influence, especially from our immediate circle of relationships, such as friends, family and colleagues.
中文摘要 / Summary in Chinese

Do you think proper password management is vital in ensuring internet security? Do you use complex passwords and change your passwords regularly? Chances are, most people would say “yes” to the first question but say “no” to the second one. Cybersecurity awareness and behaviour is one of the areas that observes the most serious cognitive dissonance, a psychological state with which people experience a large discrepancy between “knowing” and “doing”. The question is, why do people think and act so differently?

To find out the answers, researchers have looked into a number of personal factors such as age, gender, stress level, personal beliefs, etc. However, you may agree that, while you are not a risk-prone person and are fully aware of the “better” behaviours, you would often opt for actions that are similar to others. For example, even if you understand the risk of downloading content from unsafe websites, but because many of your friends are doing it, somehow you feel the behaviour is less risky. This sort of irrational thoughts is more prevalent than we might like to believe. Needless to say, human beings are social animals, and therefore we take reference of others’ behaviours to re-evaluate our own. Hence, while our decisions are a result of our education and personality, we are under constant and profound social influence, especially from our immediate circle of relationships, such as friends, family and colleagues.

To examine such social influence, a research team led by the author (2022) surveyed over 1,600 respondents consisting of year 1-3 students, graduating full-time interns and graduated full-time employees from 110 companies and five higher institutes in Macao and Mainland China. It was found that although university students overall did not have exceptionally high internet security awareness, full-time interns scored worse and full-time working graduates scored significantly lower than other groups of respondents. There appears to be a consistent and accelerated deterioration in how people behave safely in the online world as they leave campus.

The cause of the weakened cybersecurity awareness and behaviour may lie in the social education structure of China. Despite having one of the highest Gross Domestic Products (GDPs), China on the whole does not rank high in many international education indices. More precisely, while the number of university students has skyrocketed in the past decade, average members and stakeholders of the society have not received higher education, according to recent national statistics. Therefore, the profound social influence brought by the less-risk-aware peers and colleagues, as approximated by full-time work exposure, might have reshaped graduates’ beliefs and actions negatively.

Of course, it takes time for a society to undergo major social changes, but it does not mean there is nothing we can do about internet safety. For one thing, we should be aware that following what others do may not be the best way of thinking. It takes a bit of courage, as well as rational thoughts, to act differently from the people we know. For another, we can increase our exposure to safe practices by perhaps following the right internet influencers, or better still, tag along those who act responsibly in the online world. Do not forget—if we act safely and responsibly, we can contribute to the positive social influence on others too.

Hong, W. C. H., Chi, C., Liu, J., Zhang, Y., Lei, V. N. L., & Xu, X. (2022). The influence of social education level on cybersecurity awareness and behaviour: a comparative study of university students and working graduates. Education and Information Technologies, 1-32. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10639-022-11121-5

By IFTM faculty member Mr Wilson Hong