Let them play: kids glued to phones could save UK, ex-spy chief says

LONDON (Reuters) - Parents who think they are being responsible by limiting their children’s time online should think again: they could be putting their kids and Britain’s security at a disadvantage, according to a former British spy chief.

A girl views a new iPad tablet computer at an Apple store during its UK launch in central London May 28, 2010. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

“If you appear to be spending your holiday unsuccessfully attempting to separate your children from Wi-Fi or their digital devices, do not despair,” Robert Hannigan, a former director of the Government Communications Headquarters, wrote in the British newspaper The Telegraph.

“Your poor parenting may be helping them and saving the country.”

Hannigan, who left GCHQ at the start of this year, said parents are often scared of the virtual world because they don’t understand it as their kids do.

“We need young people to explore this digital world just as they explore the physical world,” he said, adding Britain is “desperately short” of cyber skills. “The baseline of understanding is too low and often behind our competitors.”

Britain’s parliament and National Health Service have been hit by cyber attacks in recent months, leaving lawmakers, their aides and hospitals locked out of their computer systems full of sensitive information.

In a report published in January, the job site Indeed said Britain has the second worst cyber security skill shortage in the world, with interest in jobs hitting less than a third of employer demand.

In February, the government opened the National Cyber Security Centre - part of GCHQ - to help plug that gap.

Hannigan said it’s not too late for parents to get involved too. He suggested they buy a Raspberry Pi, a small computer designed to help young people learn programming skills, and build it with their children.

“Leave aside your fears of being a nerd: that would be a problem to be proud of,” he said.

Reporting by Emma Rumney, editing by Larry King