The First E-Mail Address: Raising an Internet-Savvy Child

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Editor’s Note: This is another in a series of guest posts by Adam Rosenberg (adam@cdt.org), New Media Manager, Center for Democracy & Technology.

When I was growing up, getting a phone in your room (or even your own line!), if you were fortunate enough, was a major step in the process between feeling like a child and growing into an adult. Like driving your own car or getting your own bank account, getting your own phone was a step towards independence and a nexus moment between a trusting parent and a maturing child. Today, the phone is no longer even the standard communication method between two 13-year-olds. E-mail, IM and social networks are the most common forms of communication between teens and new studies have shown that Generation Y is becoming increasingly reliant on e-mail as their preferred form of communication. This means kids are growing up to become even more reliant on the internet and technology in their lives.

There is no reason to think this trend is going to reverse itself, so when setting up e-mail addresses for your kids, you should work off the assumption that this will become a primary form of communication they will use for the near future and should be approached with that level of importance. So you’re probably thinking to yourself, “I want my child to enjoy the benefits of the internet as I do, but I am worried about what might happen when I’m not there.” Adam Thierer of the Progress & Freedom Foundation put out a report about parental controls and talking to your kids about safe online use. GetNetWise.org is another great resource for keeping your kids safe online — the site has tips about online usage and how to report problems you run into.

There is no one right way to teach your kids to be safe and responsible online, but as noted in Thierer’s report — in the end, the responsibility for teaching your children proper etiquette online comes from you the parent. The same approach to have towards teaching them to know right and wrong offline applies to their activities online. Your kids are going to work off of whatever guidelines and principles you instill in them because at the end of the day, they are still your kids and your responsibility. As you stress the importance of privacy and safety online, a “practice what you preach” philosophy will go a long way with your children and you must be a strong online guardian as they learn the ropes and become more adept at what to expect online.

As noted recently in a New York Times piece on parents and their children online, you should practice the same guidelines in posting and e-mailing personal information like photos, birth dates and addresses as you would want from your kids. Just as you wouldn’t want them giving out information online about your family that would put the entire household at risk, you must guard their information as well to ensure that your privacy practices online don’t put them in danger (e.g., broadly sharing a photo of a child on Facebook and later finding it appear on an advertisement for some other site). A long talk about responsibility should be the first step so that your “digital newbie” knows some guidelines for appropriate online conduct. Talk about what the e-mail address is going to be used for and create a consistent dialogue early about your expectations for how they will be using the account. You want to find the right balance between trusting your children to e-mail and explore the internet on their own and you knowing what they’re up to so that you can be aware of potentially problematic situations. Setting up an e-mail account is one of the primary steps in establishing your online presence and digital identity.

As my colleague at CDT discussed recently in a post on this very blog — you are never too old (or too young!) to put your privacy at the forefront of your online presence. This is key to raising a smart and savvy internet user later on. Here are some key points to think about when discussing privacy and security with your children as they make the big leap onto the web:

1. The never talk to strangers rule is still true online. The internet is a very big place and was created to help forge connections between people across great distances. Your kids will not only meet up with their friends (and unfortunately sometimes, enemies) but they will meet new people who share similar interests. It is important to teach your children that the same way they would never accept a car ride from a stranger they should never respond to e-mails from someone they don’t know either.

2. Treat your e-mail address like any other piece of property. Your e-mail address is yours and yours alone. You do not have to share it with anyone you don’t want to. Teach your kids to be careful giving out their e-mail addresses.

3. Read every form you fill out during sign-up, including the privacy policy. The sign-up form is where a lot of damage can be done in terms of overexposing yourself online or unknowingly signing up for e-mail lists. Make sure your children reads every box and line carefully on the “Create an Account” page. You may want to sit and do this with them. As you fill out the sign-up form, make sure to read where a box might already be checked by default. Commonly this would appear as something like “I would like to appear on public searches.” You do not have to be searchable to have an e-mail address.

Your e-mail address, like your phone number, is yours to do with as you please. Make sure you pay attention to all checkboxes and options on sign-up forms to ensure you do not agree to be added to a mailing list or make your e-mail address public to all. It is important for new e-mail users to carefully read privacy policies (e.g., Google’s privacy policy). Websites can collect information without your knowledge. Know what information is stored and collected and how you can opt out of these practices. This will help prevent your children from falling victim to phishing and spyware scams online.

4. Do not give out personal information without permission. As noted in CDT’s Online Privacy Guide, make sure to teach your children about the dangers in giving out personal information such as name, age, birth date, address or phone number online without your permission. Children and adults both can fall victim easily to scams that might expose personal information. Make sure you go over with your kids what information they should never give out online.

5. Keep an open dialogue with your children about their internet usage and whom they talk to. The internet is a tool for engagement, so engage your kids on this medium. Ask them who they are e-mailing (not in an accusatory way, but the same way you would ask “Who did you play with today at school?”) and what their experiences online were like. Your children should feel comfortable coming to you if they encounter any problems online like cyberbullying. Cyberbullying, especially from peers of children, was found by a study by Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University to be more common (.pdf) than other online safety risks.

Most importantly — congratulate yourself! You are raising children during the digital era. They will grow up to enjoy more technological benefits and advances than you could ever imagine. By taking the time to teach them about responsible usage of various facets of the internet, you’re not only raising tech-savvy children, but ones with core principles of safety and security in mind. That’s like raising a Luke Skywalker instead of a Jabba the Hutt in the world of stand-up online citizenship! Good job!

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