"I can't for the life of me understand why a five-year-old needs an email account!" declared a friend of mine recently. She went on to detail her concerns about encounters her daughter might have with all the spam out there on enlargement of a certain part of a man's anatomy and emails offering 'hot girls xxx'.
It got me thinking whether I'd been naive when I had set my son, now nine but then five, up with his own email account. Had I been too blase about the downsides and risks? Or was my friend having one of those 'moral panic moments' that screen time issues seem to bring to many modern parents?
My son hadn't asked for his own email account but I opened one for him for two reasons. Firstly, it was simply to 'bagsy' his name, so that instead of having the equivalent of email@example.com, he would be able to have just plain and simple firstname.lastname@example.org later on (clearly Joe Bloggs isn't actually his name...).
More than that though, it was about helping him keep in touch with family and friends overseas. In particular, my husband works away a lot and my son missed him; getting regular emails addressed specifically to him seemed to help make him realise his dad was thinking about him even if he was thousands of miles away.
In the intervening four years, this has continued to be the case, and it's only more recently that he's started to send a very occasional email to a couple of his school friends.
For now, his messages and any replies come to my smartphone so I can see what's being said and monitor conversations to ensure they're appropriate. He only messages children we know and the content is no racier than a discussion of the week's football results and which quiz show is their favourite. The messaging helps them keep in touch in the holidays and catch up outside of school time. It certainly hasn't become an addiction or encroached on family time yet and if it did I'd take measures to cut back.
Of course, I'm also very conscious of the issues around internet safety but I'd rather he was learning about this by my side now, than being set free to encounter a big bad world of spam and scams alone when he's older and no longer happy for me to view his messages or watch what's going on over his shoulder.
Sara, mum to an 11-year-old, has also found her son having email a positive rather than a worry. "He has had his own email address since he was about five - it was useful for party invites and keeping in touch with his dad as we're separated, and with other family members."
Both Sara and myself have relied upon keeping a close eye on goings-on and talking to our children about sensible usage; for instance not opening an email if it's from an unknown sender. But there's also plenty of software out there designed to create a child-safe emailing experience. Tocomail, SafenSoundmail or Kidsemail are examples. Many of these services allow you to limit who can email your child and who they can email. Some even filter and 'quarantine' messages with keywords that might indicate bullying. An alternative is to add an 'alias' account to your own email or look at the family accounts many of the big providers offer.
Going back to my friend's original question, no, of course five-year-olds don't NEED an email account of their own; they're not doing the supermarket shop online or requiring one to run their bank accounts. Nor is it a replacement for sending postcards or letters or talking but, used sensibly and well-supervised, isn't it a harmless way for a child to keep in touch with family and friends, whilst teaching them about e-safety from the start?
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of New Old-fashioned Parenting published by Summersdale/ Vie.
Have you set up an email account for a younger child? Good idea or bad?
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