Live From Microsoft, It's Family Safety!
I'm not sure who borrowed the playbook from whom, but Microsoft's Windows Live Family Safety works a lot like AOL's Parental Controls do. First, you sign up for a Windows Live ID for both yourself and your child. (Doing so nets you individual Windows Live Hotmail accounts.) Then, you install Microsoft's Family Safety software. And finally, you configure everything by way of a Web control panel.
Getting started with Family Safety is pretty straightforward: Click the Get Started button and follow the prompts. You can create a Windows Live ID if you need one or sign in with an existing one. Either way, you'll land at the Family Safety settings page, where you can add one or more children and, if desired, another parent. (Why should you have all the fun?) This is also the place to create a trusted-contacts list, one that dictates who's approved to send e-mail to your child as well as who your child can e-mail. That gives Windows Live a slight edge over AOL, which offers only inbound protection.
What happens if Junior wants to contact, say, a new school friend who isn't on the contact list? He can visit the Family Safety site and ask your permission via e-mail or even instant message. When you receive the request, you can hop onto the Family Safety site and--if the new kid checks out--give your digital blessing on the spot.
If there's a drawback to giving your child a Family Safety-protected Windows Live Hotmail account, it's that the Web interface lacks KOL's kid-friendliness. It isn't complicated by any means, but younger users may find it intimidating.
Hey, Microsoft: You have the parental controls down pat--now how about offering a Windows Live "Kidmail" interface with oversize buttons and cutesy icons?
From A to ZooBuh
If it sounds like AOL and Microsoft make you jump through considerable hoops to set up child-safe e-mail accounts, it's because, well, they do. That's why I'm partial to ZooBuh, a Web-based mail service designed expressly with young users in mind. It's a cinch to set up, it offers more and better controls than AOL or Microsoft do, and it requires no extra software.
ZooBuh gives you total control over your children's e-mail universe. By default they can receive mail only from users in the approved-contact list and can send mail only to those same approved users--but you can change either setting as you see fit. You can have copies of incoming or outgoing messages sent to your e-mail address, remove images or links from your child's received mail, and block some or all attachments. ZooBuh also has a bad-words filter, with a box for adding your own unwanted words.
Both AOL and Microsoft offer controls more or less on a par with those, but what really sets ZooBuh apart is its interface: It's colorful, simplistic, and blissfully free of advertising. It even has an Easy version, aimed at younger users, that's even more colorful and simplistic. In short, this is what e-mail for kids should look like.
As you might have guessed by now, ZooBuh isn't free--but it's admirably inexpensive. Following a 30-day trial (which doesn't require a credit card), the service charges just $1 per month for each account. That's a small price to pay for safe, child-friendly e-mail that takes all of about 5 minutes to set up. Your kids will thank you.