Intervening in the “crucial” teenage years is essential to helping students avoid accidentally committing criminal acts online, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has warned, after 18 teenagers completed an intensive early intervention program that is set to go nationwide.

Although today’s youths spend more time online than ever, AFP team leader for cybercrime prevention Claudia Forsyth said many don’t know that some common behaviours – for example, hacking school networks for fun or targeting online gaming competitors with distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that boot them out of a game – are actually illegal.

“Growing up, children are taught about the dangers of illicit drugs and the importance of sun safety, yet they aren’t taught how to legally navigate the online world,” Forsyth explained, arguing that “it is just as important for them to learn these lessons from a young age.”

The 12-to-17-year age bracket is an ideal target for intervention, Forsyth said, because that’s the age when students become heavily immersed with online environments and “like any teenager, they may be curious about testing the boundaries.”

The risks of crossing those boundaries is being learned the hard way by two Florida tweens, aged just 13 and 14, who were recently arrested for creating sexualised deepfakes of classmates and now face third-degree felony charges – on par with grand theft auto and false imprisonment – amidst allegations that they violated a new state law banning the sharing of “any altered sexual depiction” of a person without their consent.

Aiming to help young people avoid inadvertently ending up on the wrong side of the law, the newly launched re_B00TCMP program – which saw 18 NSW students aged 14 to 17 participate in a 5 March pilot program at the Fortress E-Sports Arena – used a variety of activities to help build awareness that online behaviour can have real-world implications.

Participants in the program – which the AFP says “aims to encourage students to pursue positive careers in cyber security by exposing them to opportunities that exist when they use their skills within the boundaries of the law” – were chosen based on their technical curiosity and “impressive” IT skills.

With educators and industry experts acting as mentors, the students were taught positive uses for their IT skills – through interactive cyber challenges, industry expert sessions, and career pathway discussions as well as a digital cyber hunt challenge – while teaching them digital and social responsibility.

At the same time, a parallel program taught parents, carers and teachers how to understand what their children are doing online, and how to have open conversations with their children.

By ‘flipping the script on hacking’, as the program’s tagline reads, Forsyth said the program is “about changing people’s perception of hacking, which is a skillset that can be used for good with the right direction.”

What if you build it, but they still don’t come?

Created by the Dutch National Police in 2021, re_B00TCMP has been delivered to over 390 students and 155 teachers and parents in the Netherlands, with the NSW pilot program to be expanded nationwide with the support of state and territory police agencies.

The program, Forsyth said, is about “empowering the next generation to leverage their talents for good, contributing significantly to bridging the cyber skills gap in Australia [and] creating the next generation of Australia’s cyber champions.”

Yet the initial cohort exposed one of the lingering challenges facing the cyber security industry: it was entirely composed of boys.

JPC3, an AFP spokesperson told Information Age, “did not receive any expressions of interest from female students for the 2024 re_B00TCMP pilot program.”

The team “is now developing strategies to encourage more female students to apply for the next program,” the spokesperson said, including “profiling the female re_B00TCMP mentors on social media leading up to the next program and promoting their significant contributions in the fight against cyber crime.”

Lack of interest from girls reflects the ongoing challenges facing educators and authorities working to engage young women in cyber security careers amidst an ongoing pay gap and challenges in bringing girls and women into STEM career pathways.

With IT industry players wooing young people with a range of programs – including makerspaces, accelerator programs, government programs, and hackathons sponsored by the military, venture capital firms, and ACS – individuals have more options than ever to find the approach that resonates with them.

“Unlocking the full potential of the tech industry demands not just progress but a groundbreaking shift,” Snowflake ANZ channel and alliances director Cathy Conroy said after that company recently partnered with Accenture to launch a networking and educational program – with chapters in Sydney, Melbourne, and Auckland – called the Snowflake Women in Data initiative.

“Women in data need more than opportunities,” Conroy said. “They need a robust network and support system…. Success hinges on collective commitment and a conscious effort to champion diversity.”