Famous Fathers

Ex-Rugby Star Austin Healey on Parental Controls and The Digital Playground

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Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Austin Healey has never been afraid to be outspoken or competitive, whether as a versatile rugby star for Leicester Tigers, presenter on BT Sport or achieving the highest ever score for a Paso Doble on the sixth series of BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.

Now, that same irrepressible spirit and energy is going into fronting a BT campaign around giving parents greater control over their kids’ safety when online. BT have launched their Parental Controls filter, which helps families control what their children can see online and blocks out inappropriate content or harmful websites. Part of their commitment to making their internet services safer, the network-filter is free to all of their Broadband customers and is a much-needed step towards tackling a worrying issue.

For Austin, who is a father to four daughters, doing everything he can to protect his kids when they are exposed to the online environment is very much a necessity – not least of which because of how quickly young children are becoming tech-experts.

Sam Skelding caught up with the ex-England and Lions rugby star to talk about parental controls, protecting kids in the digital playground, preparing for the unexpected and being woken up by Beyoncé.

Why did you choose to get involved in BT’s Parental Controls campaign?

Well if you’re a new dad now, I’d say you’ve got four or five years – less probably – to get ready for what’s about to come. You’re always concerned about the big bad world and protecting your children, but the easiest way for someone to get into your home is through the internet. I’m very aware of that, I have four daughters between 6 and 13, and I think my 6-year-olds go on the internet more than I do. It’s become very apparent to me that I have to make them as safe as I can manage because you just can’t watch them 24/7, particularly when you’ve got more than one.

Four girls – that must be a unique challenge?

I hope it’s unique or there would be a lot of tired dads out there! It’s scary in a lot of ways and you have to be fairly liberal in your approach to life. I think I’ve been through the easy years really, my eldest has only just become a teenager and now I have to prepare for what’s next; boys, drinking and partying. So it’s something just as scary as the internet, if not more.

With so many things to worry about, how much of a priority should online safety be for parents?

It’s just like any playground really, it’s a digital playground for kids. They go out there, they find things that you would never find – I’m quite good in terms of technology but they’re all better than me already! Even my youngest are catching up in terms of how inquisitive they are and where their minds take them. The analogy I would give is I wouldn’t take my kids to a playground, leave them there for three hours a day and let them run around without me watching. The internet is no different to that and BT parental controls enables me to be there when I’m not really there.

Is fretting about always ‘being there’ the toughest part of fatherhood?

I think it’s probably the worry about what’s next. Believing too much about what you read in the press and the feeling of not being able to look after them, that’s the worst bit.

With evolving technology, do you think parents need to stay ahead of the game?

I think so – I mean not necessarily ‘ahead of the game’ but you need to be prepared for the unexpected. It’s not just actually my children, I think my 6-year-olds are more advanced because they have two older sisters, who sit with them a lot and they get to see how the internet and devices like that work. But it’s also my dad, he’s 65 and hasn’t got a clue what’s going on but now, because he has grandchildren that are always talking about it, he wants to get involved. So parental controls apply just as much to him as they do my children.

BT have obviously recognised this issue, do you think online safety for kids has been neglected in the past?

I think for a long time nobody has taken ownership of the internet real-estate and tried to police it. Yeah, we talk about bullying and what you would do if something happened, but it’s great to see that BT are actually stepping out there and saying we’re going to take some control here and enabling you to take control of your family’s wellbeing. BT Parental Controls for your home hub is so easy to do, that’s what’s scary for people like me and other dads out there, people say they can help you but you think how many pages do I have to read until I’m doing anything and what software do I need to buy or download first – but none of that applies to this. You just go to bt.com/parentalcontrols and in a few clicks you’re set up, plus you can be as strict as you want and even block every site if you wanted to.

Is countering tech with tech the ideal solution, or should parents be spending more time communicating with their kids?

Well you do need to spend time but I think dads and mums are out there working and when you come home, you want to spend some quality time with your children; they’ve been in school all day and you want them to get outside. The other good thing about Parental Controls is you can set time-limits so that they don’t stay on for three hours a day. Maybe they get an hour and a half, maybe just a homework window for an hour and you can set it to suit whatever your needs might be. Some families might even want their children to spend five hours on there because they know that the internet is the future of education.

Setting time limits must bring out your disciplinarian side – is that the type of dad you consider yourself?

I think you have to be a mixture, if you’re just strict all the time it doesn’t work or if you’re joking around all the time that doesn’t work either. On holiday this year I had to press the reset button with the two oldest ones, I basically had to reset them into being nice young ladies again! [Laughter]

In terms of self-policing their online experiences, do you let your kids have social media accounts?

They do have accounts but we have a group of friends, around twenty or thirty in a group and we don’t follow our children, but we follow everybody else’s children, keeping track of them and if anything flags up as being bad, I’ll phone their friend’s dad who will tell his son he shouldn’t be doing it. It’s basically parental tracking, so my two eldest daughters have Twitter and Instagram accounts and they’re followed by probably around twenty of my friends – who then feed-back information.

Apparently, parents find it easier to talk about sex or the existence of Santa Claus than discuss online safety with their children, how have your chats gone?

I always keep in mind two things when talking about the internet. One, it is the best source of information out there and two, it is without doubt, the easiest way for people to get into our houses. It may not be here physically, but it is here. I think you just have to scare them a little bit, not too much, but a little.

What would be your best tip for parents who are worried about online safety?

I think you just have to be alert to everything and understand that anything that isn’t held on a server or disposed of instantly like Snapchat, you should not allow in your house.

It seems parents have to spend so much time looking out for dangers, they can miss all the good stuff! What’s the best thing about fatherhood in your eyes?

Every day really! Every day something new is thrown at you, either laughing or crying or telling someone off – every day there is something new. Things that you never think will happen like a 6-year old coming into your room and pretending to be Beyoncé to wake you up is something you just never expect. I’m sure most dads would agree it’s always nice to be woken up by Beyoncé, even if it’s not actually Beyoncé!

Finally, do you have any pearls of wisdom for new dads?

I would say you can’t buy time. You can go out to work as much as you like and earn as much money as you can, but you can’t buy an extra six minutes of just you with your child, going for a walk somewhere or kicking a ball in a park, playing volleyball or riding your bike up a hill. You can’t replace that with anything!

Austin Healey is supporting BT’s Parental Controls, allowing all BT customers to keep their families safe by managing the content their children are viewing online.