Kids and technology: Getting their first email account

Building a digital presence — and getting that first email account — is part of growing up.

Photo: small_frog/iStockphoto.com

The request for an email account came right after Susanna Clarke’s* daughter, Leah, turned nine, which was about three years early for the Toronto mom’s liking.

One of Leah’s grandparents in another province had brought up the idea of email previously, as a way to keep in touch, but Clarke held off. Perhaps more significantly, some of Leah’s friends are now starting to get email accounts.

In a world flooded with online communication, iTunes, smart phones and tablets, parents are trying to work out when to allow their children to begin building a digital identity.

Some parents register Gmail addresses, website URLs and Twitter handles for newborns, or even before the baby is born (as soon as they settle on the name). Others try to delay until the teenage years. The irony is that teenagers see email in particular as old-fashioned, preferring the immediacy of text messaging, Twitter, Tumblr and online chats. It’s tweens, who usually don’t have cellphones and who can’t yet sign up for Facebook (you have to be 13), who want email accounts.

Psychologist Jim Taylor, author of the recently released book Raising Generation Tech, says there are no clear age minimums for email. He believes email is a good introduction to the media world, as it allows greater parental control than text messaging. “There’s reasonable value in allowing a child to use email as a social tool, if it’s used in moderation and with supervision,” he advises. “This is a generation of digital natives, so they have to learn to live in the digital world in a safe way.”

Parents should discuss the risks of email and online safety, and stress that email is a privilege that can be taken away. Monitor your child’s inbox and outbox by making sure you have password access, or set up the account so all messages are forwarded to your own account. Taylor also recommends setting time limits, such as no email after 9 p.m., or only after homework is done.

For Betsy Bauer* in Waterloo, Ont., email arrived via her daughter Chloe’s Grade Five class, which has an internal email system for students and teachers. Within a few months, a then-10-year-old Chloe wanted a Gmail address, too, like a growing number of her friends.

“I said ‘I suppose, but the stipulation is that I know the password,’” Bauer recounted. Chloe balked, saying her email should be private. But once Bauer explained the risks of spam and online viruses, Chloe came around.

In the end, Clarke and her husband decided that email is an inevitable step for their daughter. “We can’t keep her from it,” says Clarke. “So we’ve embraced it as a tool, and not a big, scary thing.”

*Names have been changed

A version of this article appeared in our October 2012 issue with the headline “You’ve got mail” (p.84). For more discussions on school-aged kids, visit our community message boards!