Digital expert who trains SA students reveals the safety tips to set up children’s 'smart gifts'. Picture: Pxfuel

If you gave your child a smartphone, tablet, computer, or gaming console, have you set them up for safety, protecting their privacy (and exposure), and do you know how to create an open space to discuss the risks and challenges of life online? 

A leading SA tech expert warns that access to technology provides teens and pre-teens with access to the world wide web and a vast landscape of adult content, social media, chat forums with strangers, gaming platforms, and more.

Dean McCoubrey, Founder of SA's Digital Life Skills Program taught in schools, explains, "In one sense, giving tweenagers technology without taking the steps to educate them, set the device up properly, and setting expectations and consequences, is a little like handing over the car keys without a licence."

McCoubrey adds that parents don't fully realise the extent of the problems because Generation Z appears so adept on the devices. But many are not emotionally mature enough to handle the social pressure to keep up on social media platforms. Most parents are also aware of the number of unsolicited approaches via games or messaging or social media, and then, of course, they are being served pornographic content that they may not want to see. "It's a lot for kids to have to deal with," he adds.

"And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. MySociaLife has the unique vantage point as we have taught thousands of South African learners how to be safe and smart online, and they talk about what they are being exposed to. Parents would be surprised. 

However, we find ourselves in a position where technology isn't going away, so we have to educate our kids. That requires parental guidance on the one side, while schools also need to commence a program like MySociaLife's Digital Citizen Program to double the support for teens and pre-teens. 

In 2019, there simply hasn't been enough digital education in schools - it needs to be taken more seriously, and run by experts that monitor the space, due to its fast-pace of change across apps, social platforms, gaming, websites, settings while also understanding a child's social pressures and stages of development. 

The good news is that those that harness technology's power responsibly will later explore and then excel, and that will set them apart in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This digital education will actually be a differentiator."

McCoubrey offers 6 tips:

1. Firstly, parents need to get clear on the level of access that they feel is appropriate for their child.

2. Set an agreement with your kids about what is acceptable and not acceptable - how much screen time per day, what content they can view, how they treat other people online, and how private or public their accounts are to be approached by other people. Maybe print out the agreement or list of points and put it on the fridge.

3. Authorising what is purchased - apps, games, merchandise - is essential for the parents. Using tools like Screen Time ensures apps can only be purchased with the parent's permission by setting this up in their phone or app store and being notified before any purchases get made on their credit card. This allows control over what ends up on the child's device.

4. Set up the device properly. In "settings" on the device you mostly have to start by visiting the privacy section to set the level of access your child has, or others have to your child and their content - but then also set up up the security settings in each app. Do parents know about 'Safe Search' for example on a browser, or 'Restricted Mode' on YouTube, or even about the app 'YouTube Kids' for much younger children? Parents should always have access to the password, and PIN, to check if settings have been changed.

5. There's a lot to understand - how much do parents know about a world of apps like TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram. and settings and games. Parents have to get familiar with them on Google by simply typing parent tips + name of the app or game' and then talk with their kids about them.

6. Access to data and wifi should be up to the parent as a key bartering tool. For the most part, when kids use technology, it isn't plain sailing and rules will be broken, so there has to be some consequence for them to start over, change their behaviour and learn better. To achieve that, you will need to have some power and data or wifi access is like gold.