What is the right age for children to get personal e-mail accounts? Most of us discover, usually in hindsight, that a child’s independent e-mail account changes the context of many childhood experiences and complicates our child-rearing concerns.
E-mail connects a child to the world in ways that we parents may want to postpone. Chain mail, spam, the occasional unkind note, crazy stories, and the appearance of strange links — all are experiences that cannot be avoided, even with the best parental monitoring and regular family discussions. Complicating the situation are the regular and age-appropriate conversations children have with one another, talking about odd and unusual electronic encounters. It’s wise to chat with teachers at your child’s school because they observe digital interactions that are different from what parents see.
Hundreds of digital options — e-mail is only one of them — are available and waiting for your child to discover them, so in the final analysis, you cannot prevent digital access. You can, however, make decisions help you focus on educating your child about digital citizenship.
5 Options to Consider When Your Child Asks for E-mail
- Consider holding off on an independent account until fifth grade, unless it’s given to your child at school. Before a child is in fifth grade, set up a family account or a parent/child account. A parent needs just enough personal activity on the account to maintain a presence and reinforce that it is a joint endeavor. Or check with your e-mail provider. Our family Earthlink account allows 5 different e-mails addresses, and all are accessible to the parent administrators. Think carefully about Gmail, because it opens up access to many other programs besides e-mail.
- Start a family blog or concentrate digital youth energy on a family project rather than on individual e-mail access.
- Schedule at least one dinner roundtable conversation per month focusing on e-mail and digital access topics such as home e-mail, news stories, stories the kids have heard, and current events. Plan to emphasize the need for quality and the lack of it when it comes to e-mail, spam, a chain letter, and cyber-bullying. Discussing the potential for hurt feelings before problems occur can help children recognize difficult situations.
- Check with your child’s school to see when students receive school e-mail accounts. Some schools provide student accounts in the elementary grades. Making this your child’s first independent e-mail experience, even if it’s necessary to wait an extra year or more for outside accounts, provides you with the extra assurance of school expectations combined with your own, although no digital activities are ever problem-free.
- If you decide to allow a younger child to use a personal e-mail account, consider using a family friendly service such as Zilladog, a limited e-mail environment for young children with a one-time sign-up fee. Parents set up the e-mail account and specify the addresses that can be used by a child.