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Mom's Q&A: When Should Your Child Get an E-Mail Account?

The author weighs in on the pros and cons of e-mail accounts for children.

And so it begins. 

What I once predicted would ambush us during my children’s teenage years has now appeared unwittingly during the elementary ones:  the relentless pursuit of “what everyone else has.”  Most recently, for my daughter, an e-mail account.  For my daughter, who, I should add, is 8.

Somewhat prone to dramatization, she has informed my husband and me that “all her friends” have e-mail addresses.  In the fashion of an aspiring lawyer, she went so far as to produce an address book of sorts–scraps of paper stapled together with highlighted e-mail addresses like “peacegirl” or “bieberfan,” undoubtedly fashioned during a slow math class.

As anticipated, the complaint “it’s not fair” crept into the conversation, warranting the infuriating response from my husband, “Life is not fair.”

Fair or not, her campaign for her own e-mail account, in the second grade, begs the question, when is it appropriate to allow your child his or her own e-mail account?

I recently attended an Internet safety lecture sponsored by her school.  While most of the talk was directed to parents of middle- and high school-age children, several points resonated with me. 

The first, there are 30,000 online predators.  This is a staggering statistic that should raise an alarm for all parents, regardless of their children’s ages.  For me, it is a reminder that an 8-year-old online unsupervised is unlikely to decipher the difference. 

Certainly, parents who agree to an e-mail address for their child recognize their responsibility in its usage.  Namely, that children of all ages should use the Internet in a designated place in the house where parents can oversee it.

In addition, parents should research parental controls and tell their children to avoid using real names.  The lecturer also noted that 60 percent of all colleges have access to and check the Facebook accounts of their applicants. 

While this does not directly pertain to my 8-year-old old daughter, it is further evidence that no online activity is truly private.  

More significant for me, however, is the distraction an e-mail account presents to an elementary school child already resistant to the half hour of devoted homework time she has each night.  As an experiment, I allowed her to e-mail a few of the addresses in her handcrafted rolodex from my e-mail account and laptop.  She was giddy with excitement as she discovered the symbols and text language she could attach to her simple message.  When the computer dinged, signaling an incoming message, she leapt across the dinner table, nearly overturning her milk glass, to see it.  Much to her dismay, it was an ad from Land's End for free shipping.  This exercise repeated itself throughout the night until she finally gave up and went to bed.

However, her enthusiasm was reborn the following morning when, spying a return message, she grabbed my Blackberry out of my hand and typed away with alarming accuracy.  For the next few days, she repeatedly checked my Blackberry and laptop for any response, even one as inane as “HIIIIIII!!!!” 

I saw, immediately, how this could surely interfere with homework and even meal time.  While most parents designate certain hours for and limitations to “screen time,” as the allure to use the computer is undeniable. 

Despite state laws against use of hand-held devices while driving, many adults continue to drive distractedly, a leading cause of highway death in America.  The parallel seems clear.  The very 8-year-old seduced by nightly e-mail “chats” and Internet sessions seems the  very candidate to, at age 16, abuse her early driving privileges by concentrating more on her cell phone than the road. 

I am not naïve to the reign of the Internet on our own lives and, of course, the lives of our children.  I know that my daughter’s social life will be dominated by the very innocuous e-mails and later texts she now craves.  Denying her access to this online world excludes her from interactions with her friends, akin to the endless phone calls my friends and I shared in middle and high school. However, I wonder if, at 8, if she is mature enough to handle the temptation such a vehicle of communication presents.  I remember notes once passed later regretted or secrets once shared meant to be kept.  An e-mail account allows for such mistakes to multiply in seconds in a way that may never be erased.  In order to understand this power, a child must have the maturity and wherewithal to handle it.  

I will admit what a good friend recently reminded me: This is a different world than the one in which we grew up.  At a certain point, I will need to embrace it for both my children’s sake.  I am just not sure I am ready to embrace it when she is 8.

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