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  1. ITV Report

Parents should let children spend more time online to 'save the country'

Credit: PA

Parents should encourage their children to spend more time online to help "save the country", according to the former head of Britain's electronic surveillance agency.

Robert Hannigan, who was the director of GCHQ until earlier this year, said the UK is "desperately" short of computer scientists and engineers.

"The assumption that time online or in front of a screen is life wasted needs challenging," he said. "It is driven by fear."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Hannigan said parents should not allow their children to "mooch around on the streets" during the holidays, but instead encourage them to learn new skills online.

His comments come after Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, warned parents should not let their children use the internet and social media "in the same way they would use sweets or junk food".

But Mr Hannigan said: "If you are spending a disproportionate amount of your holiday unsuccessfully attempting to separate your children from WiFi or their digital devices, do not despair. Your poor parenting may be helping them and saving the country.

Robert Hannigan was the director of GCHQ until earlier this year. Credit: PA

"We need young people to explore this digital world just as they explore the physical world.

"We worry about being over-protective when they leave the house; we need to have the same debate about the balance of risk in the world of the internet."

The former head of the agency - referred to as Britain's listening post - said the country needs children who "have been allowed to behave like engineers" by exploring, breaking and reassembling things.

He wrote: "This country...lacks the broad 'cyber skills' needed now, never mind in the next 20 years.

"Traditional methods will not solve this. There are many excellent computer science and engineering teachers, but not enough.

"Fortunately, today's young people have become good at learning through seeing and doing online.

"They are teaching themselves in new ways. It follows that the best thing we can do is to focus less on the time they spend on screens at home and more on the nature of the activity."