John Parsons has become something of a guru to New Zealand’s parents when it comes to internet safety. Maria Grace interviews the man who travels the country helping to keep kids safe online.
Mum didn’t like what she’d seen on her daughter’s phone, but rather than get angry — her usual response in the times before — she tried what John Parsons had suggested. She breathed in, reached out to her daughter with empathy, and asked questions. The two had a conversation, rather than a shouting match. They both came away from the experience feeling like they’d connected over something that could’ve easily been another rift in their relationship.
That, in a nutshell, is one of the cornerstones of what Parsons is advocating for.
“Talk to your kids [and] try not to be too judgemental. This generation should not be the first one that doesn’t have the right to make a mistake,” he says.
Parsons’ official job title is cyber safety consultant, but if he could, he’d drop “cyber” from it. Because when he goes around New Zealand schools and kindergartens teaching students, teachers and parents how to keep safe on the internet, he doesn’t talk about anti-virus software or ad blockers. Instead, he talks about attitude.
The internet is like any other place kids go to, he says, and they should be taught to think of it as such. If a stranger comes up to a child on the street and starts asking personal questions — “What’s your name? How old are you? What school do you go to?” — children are generally taught not to answer, to be suspicious of such a person, and to seek help. But when the same thing happens on the internet, say, in the chatroom of a video game, kids don’t necessarily view it the same way – because adults (and society as a whole) haven’t yet learned to view the internet by the same rules they apply to the ‘real world’.
But they should, Parsons argues, because the internet is part of the real world.
Parsons has been involved in a variety of cases where sexual predators have taken advantage of kids over the internet. His stories are alarming.
An 11-year-old could be gaming and someone with an alias like Sam2005 could comment on how well the game is going. If they answered, over the course of weeks, this child would become more familiar with this person. They could start exchanging personal details:
“My name’s Sam. What’s yours?”
“Yeah, I go to Albany School.”
“I had a rough day today.”
That trust is built over a long time. They may exchange photos of their bikes and rugby practices, move onto talking through Snapchat, and follow each other on Instagram. But what if 13-year-old Sam from Glen Eden Intermediate is actually a 57-year-old guy named Bob from Texas who’s fabricated an extensive ‘cover identity’ and whose end motive is to get the child to send nude photos over e-mail?
Parsons has worked alongside many families whose children have been duped by cunning, relentless criminals who have revelled in the secrecy that the internet allows them. He’s even come across cases where children have, initially, rebuffed predators’ approaches (they’ve recognised the risks of accepting ‘friend requests’ from strangers). But predators have found ways around it. They’ve started approaching these children’s friends first, getting them to accept ‘friend requests’. So by the time they’ve come back to the initial victims, they don’t look like strangers to them anymore. “My friend Amy and seven others are friends with this person — it must be okay,” a 12-year-old might think. And then they accept.
Recognising deceit on the internet sometimes requires interpersonal skills which kids simply aren’t prepared for. And then months, sometimes years later, when those 12-year-olds end up talking to police officers and counsellors, it becomes apparent that they’ve been deceived and, sometimes, painfully taken advantage of. Parsons has immense respect for the work NZ Police, Oranga Tamariki and the counsellors do. He knows that they — alongside the children’s families — are really on the ‘frontlines’ of the sometimes painful reality of the technological world, and they should receive far more credit for what they do.
Our children are growing up in an environment where almost everything they do or say can be recorded, sometimes with their consent and sometimes without it. Even very private events may end up as memes, shared with the world, and recorded on Google search results. The weight of this can lie heavily on young people, because their parents never had to grow up in the world that they do. Often their parents (or their teachers) themselves don’t have the skills to cope themselves, let alone help their kids to prepare for it, so the kids are left to their own devices. They keep their troubles to themselves and try to figure things out on their own.
That, Parsons argues, is what predators are looking for. They’re interested in children who are isolated, who don’t seem to have strong family connections around them, who don’t have many friends. In addition to being easier to approach such children (after all, most children want friends, so if…
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