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KATE BARBER talks with JOHN PARSONS, New Zealand’s leading authority on cyber safety for children, about keeping our kids safe by connecting with them – online and off.

The world our kids are growing up in is very different from one we knew as children. ‘Today, our children are constantly moving through cyberspace from one location to another with very little overhead and at no cost’, says John. They are the explorers of this generation; what John refers to as ‘cybernauts’.

How we parent is determined largely by the environment of our childhood and how we were parented. Today, as we grapple with the challenge of keeping our kids safe online, we have no recourse to how our parents dealt with the issue: cyber safety was simply not on their parenting radar.

As parents, we may have entered new territory, but, as John says, the same family values that we aim to instil in our children to help them as they encounter challenges in the ‘real’ offline world, also apply to the online one. Instilling such values – like having empathy and respect for others, and standing up for yourself – are crucial when it
comes to keeping children safe.

‘We cannot keep our children away from digital technology and we cannot watch over every corner of their lives. We can, however, teach them about appropriate boundaries, about how to project power and confidence, and ultimately how to integrate good values and decency into all parts of their lives offline and online.’ John challenges the assumption that the online and offline worlds are separate, that only one is ‘real’, and that we parent differently from one to the other. He urges parents to think of the online environment as one that a child ‘inhabits’, comprising ‘places’ that they ‘go to’ – analogous to the playground and mall. Like the ‘real’ world, ‘the online world is an environment where your child lives and plays, laughs, cries, learns, communicates and forms friendships, and it is essential that the modern parent understands this, for without this insight the risk of cyberseparation becomes very real.’

‘Cyber-separation is the disconnection that develops between the child and their parent when the parent has little understanding of or involvement in their child’s online world’, explains John.

While we might assume that cyber-separation occurs between parents and their adolescent children, this concept affects parents of younger children too. John examines the disconnection that many parents of teenagers experience, tracing this back to patterns of behaviour and family dynamics when the teenagers were much younger. Using real-life stories, he talks about how cyber-separation develops, starting with the toddler who regularly plays on the iPad while his mum does jobs. John’s purpose: to make parents aware of the causes, as well as the potential risks, of cyber-separation, and to emphasise the importance of staying connected with your kids – both offline and on.

John also implores parents to try to keep their ‘Cyber Tooth Tiger’ in check. ‘When parents overreact when they learn that their child is in trouble or danger because they have made a mistake or a poor choice online’, it makes it more likely that their child will hide things from them in future.

Regardless of how open a child is about issues in their world, as John says, ‘there are occasions when it is simply too hard for the child to talk about a problem’ with their parents – if they feel stupid, ashamed, embarrassed or fearful.

This is where the ‘Lighthouse’ figure comes in: a person the child knows and trusts, who will ‘be there for your child at any time, day or night – to listen to them, and help them when they need it.’

John invites all parents, and children, to consider the people in their lives who could be guiding lights, and for children to nominate their own Lighthouse person. ‘When you actively provide this opportunity for a Lighthouse with your child, you build a safe passage for them back to you and give them permission to get help when they need it.’

John admits that, like many of us, he gets excited about the sound his phone makes when a text comes through. But, while he loves technology, he doesn’t let it erode his time with his family.

He encourages parents to think about their own use of digital technology, and to contemplate the possibility of cyber-separation working the other way: do your kids feel disconnected from you? ‘It is surprisingly common for a whole family to be consumed by their individual use of digital technology to the detriment of family time.’

When he works with a family, one of the first things he finds out is whether they have a dining table, and urges them to go out and buy one if they don’t. ‘There need to be times when everyone in the family puts down devices, comes together and enjoys each other’s company.’

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