Online safety: a cyber geek dad’s perspective

A guest post by Gary Hibberd. Gary is a self-confessed cyber geek with 35 years experience in IT and cyber security and a parent of two kids, who is constantly amazed at their sense of humanity in a digital era. He is Managing Director of Agenci.

Being a parent has never been easy. 21 years ago when a nurse handed me my first child, I waited for her to hand over a manual of some kind. When I got my first car, it came with an instruction manual. When I got my first mobile phone it came with a plethora of instructions. But here I was with this new human… and the only help I could get was ‘ageless wisdom’ from friends and family.

Fast forward to 2019 and nothing has changed, except ageless advice on how to deal with children in this modern age isn’t timeless. It’s 20 years old. Email was introduced to the world in 1993, and Facebook in 2004. iPhones have only been with us for 9 years!

Now, fortunately for me, I’ve been in computers for 35 years, so I’ve been able to guide my children through this ‘strange new land’ relatively well. But I realise that’s not true of everyone.

World Wide Wild West

There are some scare statistics out there at the minute about the level of abuse occurring online, and of course cyber-bullying seems to hit our headlines on an ever-increasing basis. Those ‘trolls’ and ‘keyboard warriors’ seem to have all the power, and as parents we’re running scared.

But I am here to offer you some ‘timeless’ advice (and I believe it is timeless). Firstly let me say there are lots of practical tools that you can download and install on your devices to monitor your kids’ use of games, the internet and apps. But please let me explain something to you that is probably obvious to you anyway: your kids will find a way around them. They may not even mean to.

You see, whilst you might install apps and devices to minimise what they are exposed to, how do you know that the ‘BFF’ at school has parents who have done the same? Simple fact is you can’t be sure.

I am of course a strong advocate for ensuring devices and software are set up correctly so that your child is safe (YouTube has parental controls you can install, and all social media sites have security settings that should be reviewed often - they have a habit of ‘resetting’ them!), but here are three pieces of ‘timeless’ wisdom, which I hope you will find comfort in…

1. Parenting in 2019 is as tough as it ever was

Your children are now exposed to ‘the outside world’ in ways that perhaps you and I never were, so it’s our job to protect them from that world. But that’s the same as it ever was.

2. Technology is unavoidable

Your children will be exposed to technology, so embrace it. If you’re a new parent then take the time out to learn about some of the latest games, technology and devices that your kids are using. You don’t need to become an expert but knowing where the cool kids are hanging out will mean you can be better prepared to understand the risks out there.

3. The greatest weapon you have is not technology; it’s communication

When we were younger we were told ‘don’t speak to strangers’, and we told our children the same when speaking online. But we’re hypocrites, because we talk to strangers online all the time. Relationships are forged faster and deeper online than in the ‘real world’. So speak to your children about people they know in the virtual world. Be inquisitive, and encourage them to talk about their friends, both real and virtual.

Talk to your children in a non-judgemental way about how they use technology and how it makes them feel. Ask them about their opinion of online trolls, and what they think the solution could be? Ask them if they’ve ever seen anything online that hurt, upset or scared them, and then, when they tell you, make sure your reaction is focused on positive, reassuring actions. Please don’t threaten to take their devices off them, as that is their access to the outside world and next time they simply won’t tell you.

Unfortunately this is the lesson I learnt as a parent in this modern age; be prepared to be shocked. It is not easy, but the timeless advice still holds true; communicate with your children. Reassure them that they are loved and give them a strong sense of protection and self-worth, and you’ll never go far wrong. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s something I wanted to do when I first held my children anyway. I didn’t need an instruction manual, and I don’t think we do now.

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