For some kids, the summer months are a time to focus on sports, theater, or arts and crafts. For others, it’s a time to play in cyberspace, honing skills like penetration testing, lock picking, and cryptography.
It’s no surprise that hacking camps, designed for preteens and teens interested in cybersecurity and coding, are growing in popularity, says David Schwartzberg, president of ethical-hacking conference organizer Hak4Kidz.
“With stories of personal identity fraud and data breaches in the news all the time,” he says, “it’s natural for [kids] to be curious about how it all works.”
While hacking camps vary in focus, length, and skill levels, they all aim to teach kids how to solve problems and stay safe online while stimulating campers’ natural curiosity and creativity.
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“Hacking is really a mind-set and a skill set. Any kid who’s creative and curious is going to be a good hacker—and really, that’s all kids,” says Nico Sell, founder and chairman of R00tz Asylum, a Las Vegas hacking camp for kids hosted alongside DefCon.
“We want to give these kids skills they can use throughout their life,” Schwartzberg adds. “They’ll take with them a good competitive nature to do more, push the envelope, and drive innovation. That’s all really valuable.”
To Cameron Camp, lead instructor of ESET Cyber Boot Camp and security researcher at ESET, these camps present valuable opportunities to teach ethical coding.
“It teaches them more than how to open a lock. It teaches them to look at something they use every day in a different way.” — Nico Sell, founder, R00tz Asylum
“You either invest in these kids today or defend against them tomorrow,” Camp says. “We want to give these students the opportunity to make good decisions and choose the right path in hacking.”
With a variety of hacking camps available—and more popping up every year in various areas—finding the right fit for your son or daughter can be challenging. Here are a few things to keep in mind during your search.
Your child’s interests
Understanding what piques your child’s interest is key to finding the right hacking camp, Schwartzberg says.
Hacking “doesn’t necessarily need to be something they want to do as a career,” he says. “But if you’re not communicating with your kids about their interests regularly, finding the best fit for them will be difficult.”
The kids who are most engaged and successful at camps tend to have the most in-tune parents, Camp says. “Hacking camps shouldn’t be where you scoot them off for babysitting. Take an interest in what they’re doing to help them succeed.”
Your child’s levels of knowledge and skill are also important factors, Schwartzberg says. Don’t waste time on hacking camps that review content your child already knows; make sure they’re challenged with learning new skills that match their interests.
If your children are just starting out, introduce them to lock-picking tutorials on YouTube to gauge their interest, Sell recommends. “It teaches them more than how to open a lock. It teaches them to look at something they use every day in a different way.”
The hacking camp curriculum
Hacking camps run the gamut. A one-day camp focused on cryptography might cater to advanced students, while a week-long camp touching on many subjects might be designed for beginners.
“Go into your search knowing exactly what your child wants to learn, and where they’ll be, in terms of that learning objective, when they leave,” he says. “It’s OK for parents to ask someone at the camp, ‘What’s my kid going to learn from this?’ You don’t want to waste your money.”
Consider, too, how much of the camp is hands-on or lecture-based, and how the balance fits with your child’s learning style, Schwartzberg and Camp say.
“You also want to look for a camp with a code of ethics,” Sell says. “As we learned from Spider-Man, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ You want kids to feel empowered by hacking but be aware of the consequences.”
How hacking camps supports different levels
Children learn in different ways and at different paces.
“If you don’t learn at the same pace as the average animal in the herd, that shouldn’t be a negative,” Camp says. Kids who “don’t think or learn like everyone else often do the best, but you need someone there who knows how to work with them.”
Schwartzberg says camp instructors should know more than just the topic they teach. They should also encourage students to take on mentor roles.
“Find out if the camp has people trained to go deeper into topics,” he says. “If your child is a bright attendee, could they show [her] more?”
Above all else, if you have questions, don’t shy away from speaking with camp directors or instructors, Schwartzberg adds. “Not all parents understand cybersecurity or hacking, or how one topic differs from another.” If you have questions about what a hacking camp offers, he advises, contact it directly.