Jump How: Setting up Email for Kids

As our children grow, they are branching out with their computing skills. They are already using Skype to talk to their friends, and their keyboard skills are coming on leaps and bounds, so we thought it might be time for at least one of them to have an email account.

Email for Kids

Email Client - suitably blurryThere are a number of child-friendly email clients across the web but I’ve decided not to use any of them for our kids, for two reasons really:

  1. Most of them have a cost, and I am tight.
  2. I don’t believe in presenting children with a different set of tools to use the internet; sooner or later you’re going have to un-teach them all of that, to use the software we all use.

For those reasons I???m using a ‘standard’ email client much like the ones we use every day. I looked at the set of common email clients and settled on Thunderbird.

Thunderbird is the email client I have been recommending friends and family use for a number of years now. Just lately it seems to be wobbling, but it’s still a fairly comprehensive and fully-featured mail client, and it???s very customizable, which for our purposes, is what we need.

While I???ve been saying we should give children the same tools we use on computers and not hide behind kidZ software, I do think we should customise it a bit – hiding the obvious stuff that, if one of the kids was to accidently press it, would cause all sorts of parent support calls. So to give them email I have done the following things:

PreStep: Get a personal domain

Now this isn???t really part of the email for kids thing, but it’s a great help. Having your own domain means you can have any email address you want, use any email service you want and even swap between them without the people who send you emails ever knowing.

A domain is one of the cheapest things you can buy, they cost a few quid a year. You don’t actually need email with them ??? all you need is email forwarding.  We set up forwarding on the domain for each email address we use, to another email provider (mostly GMail, but not exclusively) – we have most of the Jump family using our domain for email, and as a bonus it means we never forget email addresses.

Having a domain for your kids’ email gives you loads of control of their email, and it means they have something they can keep as they grow up. One thing we do, for example, is forward all of the kids’ email to our accounts as well, so we can see what’s coming in and out.

1: Setup a Gmail account

Now if you???re using a custom domain, it doesn’t even matter what this is called. Gmail has great spam features and loads of space. It means you don’t have to worry about backing up email or running out of space. It also means that if you want, you can login to the GMail account and check the email without going near the email client on the computer

For GMail you need to do one thing: Enable Pop and IMAP

In GMail go to Settings – > forwarding and POP/IMAP

2: Set up Thunderbird

Another thing Thunderbird is really good at, is setting up email accounts. If you just enter the basic account information when you start it up, it will go and get all your GMail settings.

Now you have email, but let’s make it child friendly:

Setup a ‘whitelist’ for incoming mail

One thing we wanted to do was stop email coming in that wasn’t from people we trust. To do this, we set up a “white-list”. For Thunderbird you can do this via the filters.

Tools -> Message Filters ??? Click New…

Setting up the whitelist

For a white-list, our filter is if ( From… Isn’t in my address book… personal address book) then delete the mail.

This way, only the people whom we then put in the address book won???t have their email deleted.

The next thing to do is

Set up the address book

Now you have a whitelist rule, you need the list. We are using the Personal Address Book, not only as the list of email addresses that the mailbox will accept, but also as the place where you start when sending emails. Set up a contact for everyone you want your kids to be able to email. You can add pictures to the contacts too, so they can see whom they are sending email to.

Customized all the toolbars

At this point I also cleaned the tool bars right out, to remove the confusing buttons, and leave just the ones you need. As we are using the Address Book as the way to send emails, we remove all other buttons from the toolbar in Thunderbird:

Removing toolbar buttons

For the Address Book you only need to leave the Write button, so you pick a contact and click Write to send an email:

removing buttons from the address book

For the actual email window, we have removed every button but Send, and removed the formatting toolbar:

As the kids grow and get more and more confident we will probably reintroduce buttons, but for now I think the spell checker is just going to confuse them.

Thunderbird Mail Settings

We are almost there, we just have a few tweaks to make to the options in Thunderbird, to make it all easy to manage and monitor.

Tools -> Options

We haven’t done much here I’ve just made the fonts bigger (not sure why, to be honest, it just felt right).

Tools -> Accounts

Here we can add a signature (if we want) and add a setting that will make all mail be CC’ed or BCC???ed to other email addresses. This isn’t a fool proof way of getting all the emails the children send, but until they are old enough to work out how to be sneaky, it???s fine (and you can always login to GMail and see it all if you want).

CC'ing the parents

3: All Done

That’s it really; all we have done is set up web-mail and put a heavily configured version of Thunderbird in front of it. There are other things you might want to consider, including how much hand-holding you want to do, how much snooping you will do, and if you are going to tell your children that you will know what they are doing.