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The one-man battle to help parents keep their kids safe online

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.

John Parsons speaking to young people

“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?

It happens.

John Parsons travels the country to support parents, educators, and young people.

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 they haven’t got any already, they may be willing to make some over the internet), isolated children are less likely to speak up when they get into trouble — even if that ‘trouble’ means having been deceived and hurt.

And with the pain of hindsight comes shame.

“When I work with victims, I judge society based on the pain they are feeling,” Parsons says. “Shame is a public experience, it’s generated from an external influence: how people judge someone who’s made a mistake. Young people I work with are often terrified that the mistake they’ve made will get out into the public arena. I don’t believe it’s just New Zealand in particular either. We need to get better at being less judgemental. If you look through the eyes of a young person today, they’re continually evaluated through the education sector, but then on top of tha,t they’re continually evaluated for the poor choices they make. We need to understand that we’re all human beings and we all have potential to make mistakes, and we do make mistakes! My work with the students is letting them know that they are not the first generation that doesn’t have the right to make a mistake.”

Luckily, this is the perfect place to start when it comes to protecting kids, as Parsons outlines in his book Keeping Your Children Safe Online.

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“I meet parents today who are incredibly caring and compassionate. When their child has made a mistake, the first thing they show them is love. When children are raised with love and compassion, that’s what they tend to express to the rest of the world. So we need to start there. We need to celebrate parents that are doing a good job.”

“However, I also work with children who are in homes that are less than ideal. I meet children who are six years old and they’re playing R18 games like Grand Theft Auto. If we marinate children in violent enviornments, what do we think is going to come back from them when they’re 14 or 15? Those are the big issues we need to be dealing with.”

Parsons, of course, is very aware of the fact that every 4.7 minutes NZ Police attend to an assault against a female in a home. “There are children who are exposed to such violence. It affects how they view the world,” he says.

While New Zealand has extensive advertising campaigns to discourage people from speeding, Parsons says there aren’t similar campaigns in place for cyber-bullying. Why? “If we all agree, and I certainly believe this, that cyber-bullying is devastating for young people, why don’t we have advertising campaigns that go straight to the homes, to TV screens?”

Paradoxically, he’d like to talk less about cyber-bullying if it gets people talking more about human rights and healthy relationships instead. “Because bullying is the end of a journey,” Parsons says. “Rather than creating posters that say, ‘Stop, bullying is bad!’ it’s important to talk about building relationships. What do successful relationships look like? Let’s put up posters that celebrate human rights! Those sorts of discussions create resilience in children.”

“In a clinic setting or in school where a girl or a boy has been harmed, we usually find out about what’s happened because other kids have come forward and spoken on their behalf. They’ve stood up for them. We need to celebrate those sort of actions much more than we do.”

Photo: Getty Images

So what should parents do?

Parsons doesn’t advocate turning off the internet and social media because, at the end of the day, the internet is a communication tool. Staying away from technology can leave a person isolated, but he does suggest some safeguards on the way.

The most important one, he argues, is keeping the communication lines open with kids. In patient, non-judgemental ways, parents need to make an effort to remain ‘safety lighthouses’ so when troubles do happen, kids feel they have a person they can turn to for help.

One of the teenagers Parsons helped was a 14-year-old boy whose naked photo was widely circulated among his schoolmates. A girl he liked had asked that he send it, and when he did, she’d then sent it to others. He’d been bullied relentlessly for months.

Although the boy had a reasonably good relationship with his parents, he’d been too embarrassed to ask them for help because his dad had made one simple, ill-fated comment a while earlier. Together the family had watched a documentary about people who had posted naked photos of themselves on the internet, ruining their careers as a result, and his dad had proclaimed loudly: “These people deserve everything they get for making such silly decisions!”

The thing is, the dad made the harsh comment because he had wanted to put the boy off from ever making a mistake like that; but little did he know, the boy was already living the painful consequences of making such a mistake. So for a long time, the fear of disappointing his parents kept the boy from seeking help.

When Parsons got involved a while later, he called the boy’s parents and explained to them what had happened. “Oh my god, why didn’t he tell me?” the dad asked on the phone. Remember the comment you made? To this day, he remembers the dad arriving in the building, running towards his son: “I’m so sorry! I love you! I’m so, so sorry! I love you so much! I’m sorry!”

Parsons says it’s important to maintain trusting relationships with kids because, in the end, the kids are going to make mistakes anyway. It’s part of growing up. Rather than having kids suffer on their own, it’s better to have them go to their parents — even if it first means that parents need to learn to tune down their judgement, and listen.

Parsons has a cheeky saying: nosy parents are good parents. Tuning down judgement does not mean staying out of kids’ lives. It means the opposite: getting involved in their lives alongside them.

Several years ago, Parsons was working with a family whose young daughter had been sexually abused online. After spending a considerable amount of time around the kitchen table strengthening their family relationships first (because that, Parsons says, is the cornerstone of a child’s health and happiness) they moved on to changing their social networking habits. Together they deleted the daughter’s social networks and then started re-building them again.

One by one, the girl would add people onto her friends list, but it was different this time. Together, they only added people she knew and trusted. The photo she chose for her Facebook account included her dad sitting behind her, with his huge beard hanging over her shoulder. The aim was exactly that: that if you see this girl on Facebook, you see that her dad is behind her. She’s not alone. Even her Instagram account started including lots of photos with friends in them.

The takeaway from this is that safety on the internet doesn’t mean staying away from social networks because there’s value in them. But it does mean using the internet in a way that projects a strong, healthy person — exactly the person that a teenager is behind the internet.

And that, Parsons says, starts at the dinner table.

Family doesn’t necessarily mean mums and dads, by the way. Parsons’ own parents died when he was 13, so from his teenage years onward, he was raised by people other than his parents. He knows that for some children, support needs to come from people other than their biological families. Those children need to find adults they can look up to and who’ll take care of them — their  “safety lighthouses” — elsewhere. And if they haven’t got any, they need to keep pushing until they find someone who’ll listen and help. In helping them achieve that, society needs to do its job.

Just as internet safety isn’t just one conversation, it doesn’t just involve parents. We all have an opportunity to be a safe place for children. John Parsons is a sign of this perhaps more than anyone.

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