When it comes to online safety and digital literacy training, The White Hatter is best in class. We sat down with founder Darren Laur to learn his top tips for keeping kids safe online.
Not all heroes wear capes—but some do wear white hats! Parents can rest a little easier knowing that The White Hatter is out there, offering internet safety and digital literacy training. Since 1993, they've been educating students, teachers, parents and businesses, and arming them with valuable tools to support their online safety.
We sat down with founder Darren Laur to learn about The White Hatter's origins, common internet safety misconceptions—and to learn what every parent can do to help their kids thrive online.
Why did you create The White Hatter way back when?
My background is in law enforcement and when we first started in the early 90s, we taught personal safety to men, women and children. As our company grew, we started to get more inquiries about this thing called the internet. We also had a son who was getting involved in social media at the time, and we started to concentrate more on social media, internet safety and security, and privacy issues.
Today, our company comprises a variety of professionals in different areas. Our son Brandon just finished his master’s degree specializing in the area of social media and communication technology—and he brings his experience as a millennial to the company. There's also another person with our company who is working on her PhD, studying online privacy issues.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since you first started?
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen—especially with kids—is that people are now understanding their digital footprints. When we first started, it was like the wild west. You would post everywhere and anywhere! But now, people are becoming hyperaware of how things can come back and haunt them later on—especially when they’re trying to get into a college or land a job.
What are the biggest tech concerns parents should be aware of?
When the internet first started, one of the biggest concerns for parents was sexual predation. Although that’s still a reality, it is becoming more of a rarity. Today, the bigger threat to our kids is not sexual predation, it’s their own digital dossiers.
What's a good rule of thumb for how much people should share online?
Just don’t share too much information. Period. End of story. It's important for parents to help their kids understand that what they’re putting online is public, permanent, searchable, exploitable, computable, shareable—and it’s all for sale. A lot of kids will use Snapchat because it's impermanent, right? But even what you post in Snapchat can come back to haunt you. We actually teach a program for high school students on leveraging social media, where they can learn how to use these platforms to their benefit.
What can parents do to help their kids thrive online?
A lot of parents believe that they can just use hardware and software to help protect their kids. Wrong—parents need to be digital sheepdogs. We believe it’s a three-step process: participation, communication and oversight. Parental participation is important because the studies tell us that when parents interact with their kids online, those kids are less likely to get involved in risky behaviour.
And parents should always communicate with their kids about what’s going on online. We recommend that families have a "digital dinner" every week. You don't bring tech to the table—you just talk about with your kids at dinner about everything digital in their lives. And you’ll be amazed at what your kids will talk about! They'd rather talk about tech for 30 minutes than what they’re going to do at their grandma’s house on the weekend. The reality is that kids want to help parents understand how digital things work. They want to prove to parents that they know more than us already!
What advice would you give parents with younger kids?
Parents will often ask me when their kids should go online or get their first cellphone and I always have the same answer: You’re the parent. You know your kid best. But I think we have to be very, very careful about letting kids younger than 13 go online unsupervised.
There are two common approaches: We have the "free-range movement," where parents just let their kids go online and learn by making their own mistakes. Then you have the other extreme, the "helicopter movement," where parents that are not allowing their kids to do anything. I think both of those are recipes for disaster. I believe in a centrist approach. We need to let younger kids go online, but we need to provide scaffolding for what they’re doing. This is one of the reasons why we became interested in Kinzoo, because it offers a structured environment—almost like training wheels—where kids can learn good digital literacy. That way, when kids are old enough to hop over into open-source media like Facebook, Instagram or Tik Tok, they're already starting from a good base.
What is the most common misconception parents have about technology?
As a company, we’ve now saved 197 youth from self-harm or suicide after they’ve reached out to us online. And one of the things I constantly hear from parents is that it’ll never happen to their kid.
There is also a real sense of moral panic surrounding social media and screen time. But if you look at the research, it’s not how much time our kids are spending online, it’s what they’re doing with their time online that matters.
So, if all your child is doing online is being a consumer, that's not so good. But if your kid is being a producer or a creator, that is what stimulates their brain. We're trying to convince parents that social media can be a good thing when used in moderation. It's all about balance.
What are some of the positive ways kids are using tech today?
This is one of the things that I hype up in all my presentations because we adults are very quick to focus on all the negative stuff. But there are so many positive things that are going on with youth and tech. Kids are no longer just consumers of technology—they're becoming producers and creators. A high school student in Vancouver just developed an app to help identify the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Another teen in Ontario is using tech to help the blind to see. And three teens in Nova Scotia created an app to improve the wifi system at their school.
What online issues do you think kids are most concerned about today?
They're becoming more aware of misinformation. They’re becoming more critical about what they’re reading online and asking themselves if what they're reading is true, which is kind of cool.