Do you remember Clippy? He was a chipper guy, who when I first saw him in Windows as a spotty teen I thought “that’s cool, an interactive comic character who will help me use Office 97!”. Clippy was great, and then 2 minutes later I learned how to use Office properly and he quickly became annoying. I suspect his intention was to educate us in a fun and interesting way about Office 97 in those pre-web 2.0 days. Great idea, but we didn’t actually use it in practice.
This is how I feel about Tocomail. Great idea that works, but it fills a niche that probably doesn’t need to be filled. Tocomail is an interesting concept. It’s positioned as an app with e-safety at it’s heart by providing a controlled environment for children from the age of 5 to have their own email account. Signing up for a Tocomail account will give you as a parent the ability to set up an email account for your children. You can populate the address book with safe contacts, for example your family and friends, and your children can email these people from directly within the app.
The way the app is set up means that your child can only email these contacts and no one else. Likewise, only the people on the contacts list can email the child’s Tocomail account. If an email comes from an address not on the contact list then the email is put into a catch all account which the parent can log on and inspect, rather than going to the child’s inbox. Setup is easy enough. You as a parent have to create an account with Tocomail, and then you can create an email address for your child (ending in @tocomail.com). You can set up multiple accounts for different children in the same app and switch between them. You then have two user interface options, both of which have a couple of differences.
The ‘simplified’ interface is recommended for 5-7 year olds. This interface allows you to select a contact and then compose the email. The composition interface is more like a painting app rather than a traditional email account. Your child can paint, type or add pictures. The email is then sent and comes out at the other end as an image attachment rather than a text based email. The ‘standard’ interface is similar, the only difference being the child adds the contact from a contacts list and you can type, as per a normal email, rather than draw. This interface is aimed at children above 8.
Tocomail is not without it’s issues though. Firstly, with a 20 second Google search, I was able to spoof my email address which is on the child’s safe list and still send an email directly to the child, which didn’t come from my email address. Granted, many email systems can’t tell the difference between a spoof email and a real one, but it’s important to note that spam which has spoofed an address on the child’s safe list will still make it through to your child. Secondly, there doesn’t appear to be a delete option for emails in the app. This may be intentional, so the parent can check up on the child’s emails, but I would expect this in an app which is aimed at introducing children to email. Also, in the child interface, aside from the avatar being on different sides of the screen in each message, there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between sent or received email. Again, this may be intentional from the developers, mirroring the ‘conversation’ approach of Gmail.
Thirdly though, the overriding issue for me though is larger. I like the idea behind Tocomail, in that it introduces young children to a piece of technology, in this case email. However, do I want my 5 year old to be able to email? Does she need to email? Do any of her friends have email? Probably not. If she wants to draw a picture on the iPad to email to Nan and Granddad, I will email it for her. I can see that once my daughter gets older, 7 or 8 maybe, I would like to introduce her to email, but to be honest the Tocomail interface is too far removed from ‘normal’ email which she would be using at school. When the time comes I’d rather my daughter have a school email account, or in the absence of that, a standard email account which I can check, and work her to understand why social technology should be a partnership between parent and child, therefore preparing her for the inevitable Facebook/whatever exists at the time account. For me, the Tocomail interface is too simplistic, and I’d like to see it mirror something a bit more standard and modern, which would be a better introduction for children to the email they will be using in school, and later work (assuming email still is the go-to communications method then). I do also have a slight issue about things being ‘simplified’ for children, so take the comment above in that context. Children are extremely adaptable and pick up technology quickly. The youngest children in my school are 7 and they have an Outlook and a Google Apps for Education address, both of which they manage with few problems.
The Tocomail app works, and works well and I don’t want to come across as negative on the actual app. However, I’m not sure I can see too much longevity in children between the ages of 5-9 using it to email. Using it in and for school is out because of the ethical nature of giving a teacher a child’s personal (as opposed to their school) email address. Also, unless I’m way out of touch, it’s not like children as young as that have email conversations. This sort of thing is normally dealt with by Facetime or by parental emailing, or good old fashioned inviting them round to play. Having said all of this, I applaud the developers behind this app for taking e-safety seriously and creating a product that goes some way to addressing e-safety concerns in email. However, as we know, email is one of the many issues that we face when protecting children online. I’d even go as far to say that email is the least of our problems when dealing with online safety. Finally, the above describes the free experience. There is a premium account which you can sign up for, but this costs $29.99 per annum, or $2.99 per month. To me, this is a cost I could save directly by using Gmail or similar and working with my daughter to set up an email account where we can have a dialogue about the do’s and don’ts of online safety in a ‘real’ email environment. The basic version of Tocomail is free. Here is a link to it on the App Store. Credit to Microsoft for the Clippy image.