You are you, whether you are talking to someone face to face, or with a dangerous stranger online. The online world IS the real world.
That was the message New Zealand's leading authority on cyber safety John Parsons had for a group of parents and teachers during a talk at Fairfield School in Levin last week.
Parsons has toured New Zealand extensively in recent years sharing advice on how not to attract online predators, and tips for parents and children on navigating the minefield that is social media.
"Be present in their online life," he said.
His recently released book Keeping Your Children Safe Online - A Guide for New Zealand Parents was proving a timely resource for parents navigating new territory in a world that didn't exist when they were children.
A new generation was growing up with technology that brought with it real dangers. Parsons' book aimed to provide a guide for those parents and caregivers unsure of how to handle a world some knew little about.
"Cyber-separation is the disconnection that develops between the child and their parent when the parent has little understanding or involvement in their child's online world," he said.
"It's dangerous when it is unregulated."
"Not only will lack of sleep reduce you child's learning capacity at school, but covert use of digital technology is potentially dangerous, as children can be communicating with anybody on the planet."
Parsons said it was important for parents to have open lines of communication so that children weren't anxious or afraid to talk about any online issues they might have, and to treat any issue "with love and compassion".
"Don't scare them about it - empower them," he said.
"Our goal should be to empower our children to live in the online world safely and ethically."
"Our challenge as parents is to ensure that positive aspects of the online world are maximised and negative aspects minimised."
Parsons said in a changing world where vicious online bullying exists and had the potential to cause harm it was important that rules and guidelines around the use of technology was introduced at an early age.
"We need to be teaching our young people that they have a responsibility not only for the well-being of the person sitting next to them in the classroom, but also for the person on the end of the device with whom they are communicating," he said.
If a parent saw a pattern of gossip and bullying developing it was important for a parent to sit the child down and tell them "this is not who we are".
Respect was a strong theme of the workshops.
"People who demonstrate respect contribute to building a society that values other people's opinions even when they don't agree with them," he said.
It was also important that a positive and strong image of themselves was created online, not one of vulnerability. That included photos projecting a strong family unit and photographs that showed strength.
"Chin up...don't project sadness or conflict online," he said.
Have a list of friends and family, too, or people who were loved and trusted. If they don't know someone on their social network, then delete them.
"If you don't know someone, don't friend them," he said.
"You wouldn't let your child go up to a complete stranger on the street and start talking to them."
Online gaming should be monitored too, as there were certain games that involved lewd and criminal behaviour.
"These games are not consistent with the values of a family, quite apart from the fact it is illegal to knowingly allow a young child to play an R18 game," he said.
Paedophiles gravitated to areas where children played, like online games, he said.
It was also important to project a the right image as potential employers had access candidates online profile.
"You child's CV today is a combination of the one they submit to the employer and information available about them online," he said.
Parsons lost his parents when he was in his early teens but still remembered key family values they instilled in him, in an age where families had dinner together at the tea table and talked.
He stressed it was important to eat together and have areas of the house and times of the day that were technology-free zones.
"Keep it away from the tea table," he said.
"The most important relationship a child has is the one with their family, not with the technology.
"If you don't put your device down when you child comes to you to talk, they won't put their device down when you want to make eye contact with them."
One helpful tool was to develop a "contract" for technology use, that set out guidelines, rules and boundaries.
Some key strategies for parents:
- Maintain open lines of communication with your child. Don't overreact if you see something that alarms you or makes you angry. Share your concerns, talk about issues in terms of how they relate to safety.
- Don't let your child store or use devices in the bedroom when they are young. It will help avoid conflict and issues when they are older.
- Show an interest and enthusiasm when they use technology. Showing interest will promote open communication.
- Become your child's "friend" in any social network environment you child creates.
- Maintain easy access to you child's platform via their log-in so you can see everything.
- Ensure that you can always have access to your child's phone to help them stay safe. Make it a condition of owning a phone. Always check that their communication is consistent with family values.
- Educate your child about the importance of protecting images, and to seek permission before uploading images of someone else online, and remove that image if someone doesn't like it, and vice-versa.
- Check their browser history occasionally.