Q: My kids are "tweens" and want to get their own email accounts. What is the best email program for children of this age?
-Entering the Email World, in Memphis, TN
A: Dear Entering the Email World,
For tweens, you might want to consider whether the email program you choose for them is free or subscription-based. Although it is certainly tempting to use a program that doesn’t cost money, know that what you don’t pay in dollars you do pay in advertising exposure. And not all kids know that they are even being advertised to. One study showed that children learn to recognize online advertisements as they get older, with 6 year olds recognizing ads 25% of the time and 10-12 year olds recognizing ads 75% of the time.
Another thing to think about in regards to advertising is that unlike TV commercials, ads embedded in email programs are personalized for each user. The email program scans the text of each email and then matches up ads to the content of that email. The data is not shared directly with advertisers, but because the ads are more relevant to the user, they are more likely to be clicked on. For example, if your child writes to a friend about the new video game that she got, she may see ads for other video games or for merchandise related to the specific game she mentioned.
In addition to considering the specific structure of a given email program, sit down with her and have an open conversation about why and how she’d like to use email, as you would when introducing any new technology (see example of cell phone conversation starter). Maybe her teachers distribute and accept homework through email, or maybe she wants to be able to keep in touch with family members (most kids use text messages rather than email to communicate with friends—for them, email is the way they communicate with adults, like parents and teachers).
Hear her out; then ask her what responsibilities she thinks should come with getting an email account. Use that as a jumping off point for a conversation about responsible Internet use and safety. Make sure your tween knows that the Internet is a public space where she should not share personal information, should communicate only with people she knows, and should say only things she would say to anyone’s face.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,