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Protect your child's email experience with Tocomail for iOS

tocomail interface on iphoneThere's always a degree of tension present when it comes to technology and children; what's appropriate and safe for a savvy 10-year-old may be nothing but trouble for a less-responsible teenager, and only an involved and vigilant parent or caregiver can make decisions about what works for a particular kid and family dynamic.

While most parent agita centers around social networking, bullying/abuse and photography (what I like to call the "unholy Snapchat trinity"), even the question of whether young kids or tweens should have their own email accounts may raise eyebrows.

Providing safe and secure email experiences for kids is the business of lots of services, including some that have come and gone over time (this PC World article references our parent company AOL's former AOL Kids offering, which was sunsetted back in July of last year.) Tools like Zoobuh (US$1 a month per kid) deliver filters, monitoring and granular control for younger email users.

While parents can and do set up regular email accounts for kids, most consumer services have a minimum age limit like Google/Gmail's 13-and-up rule. Trying to slide by on that may result in your child's account being suspended at the worst possible time (like when a key assignment is due or a big birthday party is coming up). And maybe it's not the best lesson regarding integrity and honesty when you have to warn your child to consistently lie about her birthdate lest the Google FBI (family birthday investigators) throw her into juvenile digital detention.

Apple's parental controls for the Mac Mail.app client let you lock down approved senders, but don't deliver the flexibility of a web and mobile client. The demand for an easy, manageable service that's Mac- and iOS-friendly is so high that even an April Fool's parody story on "iCloud for Families" from TidBITS gets pride of place in a web search.

The new Tocomail service and corresponding iOS app are meant to assuage some of those anxieties. With both a free tier and a $2.99/month premium option, Tocomail gives your kid(s) a choice of preschool-simple or grade-school "blackboard chic" interfaces. There's an iPad/iPhone drawing board for preliterate correspondents, a "picture timeline" view and more. Adding contacts is easy from the parent-centric web interface (which looks a lot like the kid-centric UI, just be warned). You can see a quick promo video here.

Parental control is baked into Tocomail, and it allows parents to easily monitor and quarantine email to their offspring. The premium tier adds a contact "gray list" for subsequent approval, and lets kids create their own contacts; parents can also approve or decline new contact requests directly from an email notification, rather than having to go to the web Tocomail interface to approve them. Premium Tocomail also includes a preset bullying filter to prevent issues before they occur.

Part of me wants to love Tocomail, and it is indeed a very simple and manageable way to give your kid an email account without worrying about setting up lots of positive filters and granular management. But given that a lot of schools are already using Google Apps for Education for students as young as fourth grade, the kid-simple interface strikes me as a disservice to digital-native kids. Why create an iPad app that looks like a coloring book, when today's coloring books already are iPad apps? Wouldn't it make more sense to give them something that treats kids (and parents) as the sophisticated software consumers they are?

The other red flag for me is that giving your kid an email address at any age-specific service means that somewhere down the line they will have to change their address, and deal with all the accompanying contact-management and notification hassles. No 14-year-old is going to want to be getting and sending email from Tocomail, but that's what family and friends will know them by. I'd much rather use a domain I own and control and then handle forwarding/recipient screening as needed; however, that level of effort may not be appropriate for all dads/moms and all families.

Tocomail is free on the web and in the App Store, with a $2.99/month or $29.99 annual premium service option.

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