Parents in the UK who let their children spend all day glued to a tablet or smartphone may not be bad parents after all–in fact, they may be doing their part to help save the country from the cybersecurity threats of the future, former GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) director Robert Hannigan wrote for the Telegraph on Tuesday.

Hannigan, who led the British intelligence organization from 2014-2017, wrote that the UK was lagging behind its competitors in terms of cyber skills, and was “desperately short of engineers and computer scientists.” So, he challenged parents to let their children explore technology, and to not limit screen time out of an irrational fear that life in front of a screen is life wasted.

“Parental guilt is also driven by a failure to appreciate that life online and ‘real’ life are not separate: they are all part of the same experience,” Hannigan wrote. “Millennials understand this.”

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Hannigan’s thoughts came on the heels of research that claims children are now spending more time online than they are watching television. However, Hannigan doesn’t necessarily see this interest in the web as a bad thing. Rather, he wrote, allowing children to explore online can help them grow in the knowledge they need to keep up with the changing technology of the future.

“If we are to capitalise on the explosion of data that will come through the ‘internet of things’, and the arrival of artificial intelligence and machine learning, we need young people who have been allowed to behave like engineers: to explore, break things and put them together,” Hannigan said.

Many parents are often fearful of the internet and technologies because they don’t understand them, Hannigan wrote. While there are real dangers online, and children need be protected from them, they also need the freedom to traverse the digital world and learn new things, he added.

In order for parents to also grow in their digital literacy, Hannigan suggested they buy a computer kit, like the popular Raspberry Pi, and build it with their children. Using free guides online, he said, they’ll be able to learn coding concepts and more.

And, for those who may be scared of becoming a nerd through these activities, Hannigan noted “that would be a problem to be proud of.”

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The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Ex-UK spy chief Robert Hannigan wrote for The Telegraph that parents should encourage their kids to spend more time online to develop better cyber skills.
  2. The UK is lagging behind competitors in cyber skills, and its number of engineers and computer scientists, Hannigan wrote.
  3. Hannigan also encouraged parents to get involved, building Raspberry Pi kits and learning coding with their kids.