On John Parsons, internet safety and the importance of relationships

Yesterday I attended a talk by John Parsons, an internet safety consultant. I was so deeply moved by what he said - and how he said it - that I feel I will be processing this information for many more weeks to come.

And I want to pass it on.


In a couple of weeks (after I have finished the semester at school) I will be interviewing him for a long feature piece, and if at all possible I will be sharing the link to that interview here.

But for the moment, I want to share some snippets of what he said here.

First of all though, who is John? John counsels people around the use of internet technology. He works with NZ Police in cases of extreme abuse on the internet, so on one hand, he helps people that have already come in harm's way to rebuild their self-worth, public image, trust in the community and confidence. At the same time, he talks over and over again with kids all over the country on what communication on internet means, and what it's capable of, and how to use it safely. Above all, he talks about healing, and the importance of love.

He is the author of "Keeping Your Children Safe Online" (Free delivery within New Zealand if using coupon code SAFE17, more information about it here.)

He spends a lot of time in Southland because various community organisations (Rotary, ILT, Community Trust and others) have made sure that John and his team are funded to such a high level that they are able to spend 85 days every year in Southland where they provide ongoing, region-wide PUBLIC talks and training, year-after-year. They go to high schools, primary schools, kindergartens, community groups, all with the aim of spreading the information and support on how to use technology in a way that would keep people healthy and happy.

Yesterday he spoke about, among other things:

Internet is like any other environment we go to. If in a park a stranger comes up to a child and asks, "What's your name? Come with me" then children have learned to say no, step away and seek support. They need to be taught to think of internet in the same way - it's like any other place they go to. If someone asks them for private information not relevant to the game they're playing - and especially if the child gets invited to follow a link to some other website/game/environment, they need to learn to see that as a warning sign.

***

It goes back to social complacency as a whole. John was telling a story about sitting in Queenstown and watching a bus full of tourists pull up to the lakeside. Asian tourists piled out and started taking photos of the two children playing on the lakeside ("Oh, look at that, how cute!") They stood in such a way that their bodies ended up like "barricades" between children and their two parents, sitting on a bench nearby, so the children looked towards their parents for cues on what to do next - they were clearly uncomfortable with the situation. The parents just smiled awkwardly, looking also very uncomfortable, but no-one said anything. And John thought, in that moment, the kids learned that the social rule was, "Suck it up when you don't like what's done to you." A lakeside is no different from internet - if you're not comfortable with what's done to you, you learn (and you teach to your children!) to lift their chin up and say, "No. Stop. I don't like it."

***

Vulnerability draws in people who are looking for vulnerability. It's like a girl walking down an empty street at midnight with money flapping out of the pocket - it draws in people who want to take advantage of that vulnerability. But let that girl walk alongside her dad instead - instantly the situation becomes safer because the girl is not alone, and she displays that she has supportive people around her. On the internet, it's the same.

John told a story of a teenage girl who got sexually predated on the internet. A lot of premeditation went into it. The man spent a long time gathering information about this girl, but the girl refused his approaches on Facebook at first - she knew not to accept invites from people she doesn't know. But then the man found out who her friends/followers are on Instagram. He started following her friends, getting them to accept his invites, so by the time he approached this girl again, she accepted because he "was friends with a lot of her friends", so it seemed safer.

He posed as a 24-year-old man from US, but he was older than that. He found out from Facebook what her interests are, and gradually they built up trust. It was based on lies, of course, because he would simply make up stories to make her believe that they had a lot in common, and because the girl didn't have a strong relationship with her parents, he was able to become the main person she trusted.

Eventually, she got sexually predated on.

What resonated with me, was when John got involved in rebuilding that family - their trust and their "dinner table" at first, but then their social network habits afterwards. They deleted all her social networks and then, they started building them again. One by one, they would add people, but it was different, of course. Now the girl - even the image she projected on the internet - was about strong social networks around her. The photo they chose for her Facebook account included her dad sitting behind her, with his huge beard hanging down over her shoulder, and the aim of it was exactly that - that even if you see that girl on Facebook, you see her dad behind her. You know that that girl isn't alone. She's got family around her. She doesn't project vulnerability - she doesn't walk down a street alone at midnight; she's got her dad with her. Her Instagram account, the same thing: she's got friends with her. She has LOTS of photos with friends in them!

The takeaway from it was, safety on internet doesn't mean staying away from social networks - because there is value in them. But it does mean using them in a way that would project a strong, healthy person - exactly the kind of person that someone is behind the internet.

Because that's the thing: the three most important things are self-control, empathy and self-worth.

***

He talked a lot about the importance of relationships, about the value of strong families behind kids.

Safety on the internet starts at the dinner table, he said. It's not so much fixing the kids' internet "persona" - it's supporting them to be people with self-control, empathy and self-worth.

And it starts at home.

***

Family doesn't necessarily mean mom and dad, by the way.

John's parents died when he was 13, so between ages 13-15 he actually lived on the street. (He grew up in England.) From 15 onwards the support he got didn't come from his biological parents, but it didn't need to, because family is larger than that.

There are kids for whom such support doesn't come from biological families, so they need to find people they can look up to and who will take care of these kids - their "lighthouses" - elsewhere. John talked about the importance of making sure that kids have that - their "lighthouses", people they can trust.

And it made me think about the people around me in New Zealand who, to me, are exactly that: they're my New Zealand family. We're not biologically related, but they are my family nevertheless.

***

Okay, sorry, gotta run now, but I will probably come back and write a little more in the evening. The bottom line is: John Parsons was absolutely awesome. Seriously! Seriously awesome!

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