Should young kids have email accounts?
Your 7-year-old’s best friend is moving away. She’s really upset about it and wants to keep in touch. Can she have an email account? Pretty please? She promises to use it just to keep in touch with her friend. And maybe her grandparents. And her cousins in Florida. What about her camp friends, and the kid she met on the beach during winter break?
You know it’s the tip of the iceberg. Email is a powerful and immediate way to stay connected, but it also opens up a whole host of questions about safety online, from protecting one’s privacy to enabling the kind of digital communication that can easily be abused, misused or misunderstood. And it also invites questions about all kinds of other activities online, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook.
So what age is the right age for a first email account?
It’s a variation of the same question I often hear from parents at my workshops – what age should kids be allowed to surf the Internet, get a cell phone, or start a blog?
My answer is always the same: there is no magic age when every kid is ready. While you need to balance your family values, your child’s level of maturity and responsibility and your comfort level in supervising their activities, you should also consider the many benefits of guided introduction to online tools.
I’m a big proponent of teaching kids how to have healthy online habits from a young age. Just as we offer lessons throughout childhood about civility, respect, manners and contributing to the physical communities in which they live, we should also teach kids how to be productive, creative and responsible members of our wired communities. After all, our children are going to inherit a world where digital technologies and the Internet will be part of almost every job one can imagine.
I firmly believe that introducing school-aged children to email at home — at a point where you feel comfortable — offers a golden opportunity to establish responsible use of online tools. There are many useful skills they can pick up along the way.
The very first thing to tell them is that they must never assume anything written in a digital format is private. These conversations (emails, texts, messages, comments) can be easily forwarded, copied or taken out of context without permission. And once it’s sent, you can never be sure anything you’ve written or posted is completely deleted.
Here are some additional steps and recommended guidelines for any school-aged child opening their first email account:
- Parents should know the kids’ usernames and passwords, but emphasize that this information shouldn’t be shared with anyone else;
- Kids should have to ask permission before opening a new account;
- Anything written should not be considered private and parents get to read it. (If they want privacy, it should be written out in longhand on paper).
- Review emails with your child from time to time (not behind their backs, unless you think they might legitimately be in danger). The point of this is not to violate their privacy and be a snoop, but so they don’t get involved in bullying, or be fooled by spam, chain emails, viruses and Nigerian princes;
- Limit the places they use their personal email address, so they don’t become overwhelmed by sales pitches from companies eager to market to children (or anyone). Consider using a separate “junk email address” to use when companies request that kind of information, and make sure they share this information with you;
- Discuss with them what it means to be a good “e-friend,” respecting what others write, not forwarding emails without permission, not quoting emails out of context, or using them to tease, blackmail or coerce;
- Discuss what they might do if someone emails something hurtful or disrespectful. What kinds of responses are possible? How can they let someone know that their words were not OK?
- Talk about the difference between spoken words and type — the latter may not convey nuance, sarcasm and irony the way spoken words do, and misunderstandings can result;
- Show them the difference between “reply” and “reply all”;
- Explain that only when a child has demonstrated consistent good judgment and responsibility, will parents be comfortable giving additional increments of privacy online.
The goal is to support and teach your children how to become good digital citizens — after all, this is the world they will inherit. They need to learn these healthy online habits somewhere, and it’s ideal if they are reinforced in the home. So go ahead and let your second-grader open an email account, but make sure he or she has the tools, resources and supervision to handle it responsibly.