First, set your safety net

01:24, May 19 2014
john parsons
IN SAFE HANDS: John Parsons with Isla Bank School pupils, from left, Nikita Philpot, 10, Jack Taylor, 12, and Lauren Vesty, 11.

John Parsons' job is to power up Southlanders, young and old, to protect themselves and their families from the online world's occasional malice and implacable memory. Fear not; the best protections do not require techno-wizardry on our part. Michael Fallow reports.

John Parsons knows more than how to work a computer. He can work a room, too.

As he speaks to an adult audience at the Invercargill Workingmen's Club his vowels fly back to his original hometown, Birmingham, England, but his eyes stay resolutely on-task. They sweep the crowd with educated discipline. He scans them in a mirror-S shape, left-to right, then right-to-left, then left-to-right again.

That's a mapping trick. It divides the room into thirds and done right it allows him to more closely scrutinise the people in each section without looking squinty or creepy as he does it.

When it comes to a show of hands he's analysing more than two potential reactions; for instance the difference between those who shoot theirs up, and those who have instinctively started, but then paused to make darting sideways glances to reassure themselves that they won't be the only ones.

(Lately he's been buzzed because, on an ethical question, a recent group of kids he was working with were answering without a single sideways glance. No small thing, that. They were consulting only their own values and those values were shaping up strong.)


But, see, here's the thing about Parsons. We know about these techniques only because he interrupts himself, on occasion, to explain what he's doing.

This seems to be typical of the man: He's pretty big on accountability but, more than that, he wants his audience to understand - drumroll - how things work and how every one of us, man woman and child, can best react to that knowledge.

Especially when it comes to the internet. This cyber health and safety advisor is now on a major consultancy project throughout Southland. A so-far highly effective little outfit, the Southland Poppycock Trust, has been artfully fundraising to keep him here for a year, working with thousands upon thousands of our school children, the elderly, businesses, and police, health, social welfare and other government officialdom.

How long it will keep going remains to be seen, but the trust is shooting for a second year to train others to keep the provincial safety programme ongoing.

Parsons has no wish to terrify his audiences with his stories - which, seriously, he could.

He has dealt close-up with the anguish caused by sexual predators and scammers. He's also seen the heartache caused by cyber bullying, sexting and the youthful follies of kids growing up in an online world.

But never does he let the scares stray far from the solutions and protections available. His message isn't to be afraid, just to be aware. And then be encouraged because the protective skills are there to be taught and, at their core, they dovetail with the development of a fully functional sense of self-respect, care for others, and a working knowledge of how to maintain safe boundaries.

Parsons is not a rage-against-the-machine type. He reckons we shouldn't fixate on putting technology protections in place to the extent we overlook the more essential values-based solutions of encouraging in our children a strong sense of self worth and empathy for others

Get those right and with the addition of some commonsense adult oversight it becomes a far-from-complicated thing to go on to the internet with personal boundaries safely in place.

Empathy doesn't make us vulnerable, any more than the lack of it makes us safer, Parsons attests. If we want to build a truly resilient child, empathy is part of the package. It provides a context that helps make skills readily teachable.

And that's another thing; Parsons says that for his part he can never, ever judge those who have made mistakes.

'You can judge them or you can teach them," he says.

"But you can't do the two. I choose to teach."

One of the most common mistakes is the failure to remember that an instant decision to post online can have just-about-eternal consequences.

That picture posted on a boy's laddish facebook page of a vomiting girl - identifying her and laughing about what a mess she's in - isn't just a take-it or leave-it picture that's funny or not. It becomes a lasting part of her digital footprint.

"I know more than 40 boys and girls who cannot get part-time jobs because of the things their friends have posted on the internet about them," Parsons says.

The same goes for the ones who post the image. Years later it may be what appears on the cold screens of a potential employer checking out a job applicant's online past.

Is the prospective boss going to like the thinking of the kid who, maybe ages ago, posted that photo for a laugh? The employer probably won't know the messed-up girl, but maybe he's got a daughter of his own ...

"The internet doesn't judge," says Parsons. "But it never forgets. And we do the judging."

The world's first truly online generation will be the most easily judged yet. Fairly or not.

"There are children today who, by the time they are 50, will have masses of information [about them] on the internet and they'll have no recollection of giving anybody permission to put it up."

Kids today, eh? But it's not necessarily out of anyone's deliberate meanness. The older generation who shot photos on instamatic cameras, tootled down the chemist with the film and shoved the prints into a rarely opened album or shoebox, didn't know to teach their kids about the consequences of online publishing.

But by the time John Parsons and the broader social network envisaged by the Poppycock Trust is through with the rising generation, the aim is that they will see themselves not as the owner of a photograph, but the guardian of it. They will understand just what is at stake. It's a respect thing.

Which brings us to sexting. Parsons chooses his words carefully when he discusses the recent study from Melbourne's La Trobe University which found that sending sexually explicit messages and pictures is so widespread among teenagers that parents should see sexting as a new form of courting. Let's just say he disagrees.

In truth, what upset him most about the article was that there was not one single mention of the fact that underaged sexting is illegal. How did that suddenly become irrelevant?

"If we allow young females to think that it's acceptable to be analysed and evaluated through the type of pictures that they send back to potential suitors, we will drag [them] back to the dark ages."

Trafficking in naked pictures is risky for anybody but consider this: organisations often find it hard to secure extremely sensitive information. It gets lost now and again. "So how on earth can we expect young boys and girls to maintain integrity and security around information on a cellphone?"

And again, if the boy has transmitted an underage sexual image, consensual or not, he has just trafficked in child porn and is facing criminal charges that would be with him for the rest of his life.

For their part the very young if they are not carefully supervised online, are also at risk from the attentions of pedophiles. There used to be a natural barrier helping protect them; the wee tykes couldn't use keyboards very well. But in these days of cheaper broadband and Skype, children can go straight into a predator-friendly environment in visual terms.

Left to cope for themselves on a site that isn't half as safe as it may appear, they're open to cajoling,which can then become bullying and blackmail. It can be a poisonous message. See what you've done already? If you don't take more clothes off, we'll send this to your parents .,..

Getting scary again, John. But there is nothing terribly confounding about the solution. At this age, kids need to be overseen. Parsons finds it strange that so many parents now allow eight- and nine-year-olds to sit on Facebook, under fake birth dates and be connected to a thousand strangers.

Even when they are old enough to be there legitimately, the first friends they should have on Facebook, whatever their age, should be mum and dad, he says. And this is definitely not the place for them to start making a legion of new friends.

"The social network these teens live in physically should be identical to the one on the internet. Then it should be locked down," he says.

Instead, the children have got away on us.

"Our children have gone out there and established dominion. We have to be there, to the best of our ability, and when we can't be there we've got to give them the skills to look after themselves."

When the time comes that people are going into chatrooms to talk to strangers, they need to know how to maintain boundaries, not pass out pictures, and to know the red-flag issues.

"We've got to raise them to understand that their ID is valuable, that they're unique, and they have an absolute right to be treated with respect."

As for the much-lamented problem of online bullying, Parsons woudn't have us look reproachfully at our schools.

"I've never met teachers who have crafted a boy or a girl into becoming a bully."

Look instead, he says, to the home. To parents who scream at each other, or overreact to situations continually throughout a child's life.

Again, he checks himself to ensure he's not judging. On an issue this big, collaboration is the thing to aim for.

"The two most important rooms in a democracy are the living room and the classroom. We have to resource them both."

Bullying isn't just a pitfall of the youthful. And much as Parsons is fiercely protective of privacy, that doesn't make him a slavish proponent of anonymity. He's no fan of anonymous micro- blogging from any age group. It strikes him that creating apps that have built-in anonymity promotes, in some users, the belief they can say anything without fear of consequence.

"Democracy has not evolved in this way, historically."

Healthy communication needs a balance of power and the foundation for this equality is knowing who the other person is. Or at least being able to find out.

When we aren't able to know who is communicating with us. or saying things about us, we lose the ability to effectively challenge them.

Young or old, people can be taught the warning signs of manipulation; like when they realise that their curiosity has just been triggered.

Scammers, says Parsons, use two triggers. Greed or curiosity. And they do profitably target children as a way to get into adults' pockets.

Here's one trick: leaving memory sticks lying around outside schools. A 12-year-old walking home sees one on the ground. Curiosity kicks in. He shoves it into the family computer when nobody's around and the operating system automatically opens it. The first message is oh-so-familiar. Click here. The youth does it and nothing conspicuously exciting happens ... but the link has dropped a key-logger virus which inobtrusively zooms through the system. Later, when mum or dad do their online banking, it records their name and password, and texts it to the scammer's smartphone.

Kids can be also persuaded to invite that virus by responding to a Facebook message that just picks a common name and says: check out what so-and-so has said about you.

For their part, adults are still potentially susceptible to that appealing message that announces the taxman owes you money. The outcome-focused wannabe recipient impatiently clicks on to the link without thinking carefully.

For the bluff traditionalists of the criminal world, online information is also useful for good, old-fashioned real-life crime. The child, or adult, who posts on Facebook about how it's only two weeks' until that long-awaited family holiday may be alerting a burglar to make a diary note.

Parsons would like us to remember that children have a right to use technology. It is neither safer, nor fairer, to remove them from a communications tool that, used correctly, should empower and connect them.

But we need to take our humanity with us when we go on to the internet. An awareness of our rights and responsibilities - for ourselves, our family and others. The ethics we take with us will then provide the boundaries we need.

The Southland Times