Q. My elementary age daughter is pestering me to set up an e-mail account for her. Some of her friends have e-mail addresses; others don’t.  I don’t see a problem with it, but are there are risks to her safety I should be thinking about? If we create an account for her, are there guidelines you’d suggest to keep her safe online? Thanks.

Parent oversight is key

There are always risks to be aware of online, whether you’re setting up an e-mail account, a social networking account, on a game site or just surfing the web. Here are some tips to keep your children safe:

  • Sit down with your child and set up the account with them.
  • Let them know that you too will have access to their account and can check it at anytime.
  • Create a strong password and keep it in a safe place.
  • Tell them not to share their password with others.
  • Make a list of people they can talk to and if they receive anything from someone they don’t know, make sure they know not open it and delete it right away.
  • Teach them about personal information like their name, address, phone number, school, hobbies and pictures.

It is very important that personal information be kept personal and only shared with people they know face to face and who you approve of. Having a good antivirus program is important if they want trade pictures, etc. Teach them the difference between appropriate content and inappropriate content and what you don’t approve of. If they receive anything inappropriate or something that makes them feel uncomfortable, make sure they know to tell a trusted adult.

Open communication is very important when kids want e-mail accounts and social networking accounts. If you start with these rules from the beginning with them, it won’t be anything new to them when they are asking for social networking accounts in the future.

– Mike Harris

E-mail with safety controls

An e-mail address can be a great introduction to a fruitful relationship with interactive technology for a younger child, before they begin to use text messaging as their primary form of communication, which only increases as they age. Unfortunately, the internet does not always make it easy for parents to provide a safe online experience, as 20 percent of children, aged 10-17, have been solicited sexually online.

Other threats, like sexually-explicit spam, solicitations for private information, and cyberbullying, can make this seem like a daunting task. Short of installing computer-wide tracking software, like Norton Online Family, parents can easily protect younger children by providing them with a kid-friendly, parent-monitored e-mail address. Luckily, there are many kid-specific e-mail services, as well as kid-friendly versions of “adult” e-mail services.

E-mail for kids, whether paid or free, offer friendly user interfaces and parental safety controls. Safety controls often include the ability to send and receive mail from a customized (stranger-free) contact list, and a parent’s only e-mail queue where messages can be screened before a child sees them.

Paid e-mail programs for kids under age 13 are often modestly priced, usually include a free trial, and offer some extra features that may be worth it; options include ZillaMail, KidsEmail, ZooBuh, KidMail.net, Kid-Safe Mail. A good overview of these services can be found below.

Free, email services for kids include PikLuk, KidRocket, TK for Kids, and there’s also the kid-specific Yahoo Family Accounts, AOL Kids Email, and Windows Live Family Safety. Finally, it’s also possible to configure Google’s Gmail for kid-friendliness, and you can find another article about using Gmail safely for kids below.

As research shows that kids, who are educated in the importance of staying safe online, are more likely to take self-directed action to remain that way. There are many internet safety resources for parents to use when speaking with their children. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also has a robust online safety guide, a PDF that can be downloaded by clicking here.

Internet Safety Guidelines published by NetSmartz, a project from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children‘s, are another great resource. They offer safety advice for parents.  These include pointers such as working with kids to brainstorm an email address that does not contain information about gender, identity and location, and teaching kids not to share passwords with anyone but a parent. A safe email address, and an open dialogue about online safety, is a great start to a lifetime of safe online experiences.

More resources

Editor’s note: The latter part of this post was written by EdNews Parent safe schools expert Christine Harms’ daughter, Samantha Lynn Harms. Samantha is a writer and the owner of Team Tech Tonic, a technical consultancy firm based in Lafayette.