Pre-Screened Email for Kids
February 8, 2004 11:21 PM   Subscribe

Any way to set up an e-mail account for a child that's manually pre-screened? [more]

I want to be able to give my daughter an e-mail address and account. But before she can download it off the server, I want to be able to prescreen it for spam and other inappropriate content. I want it to be seamless on her end - start Eudora/Outlook/Pegasus or whatever, new messages come in marked as new.

I know I could go with an IMAP account and clear crap out that way, but then I'd have to make sure I check more often than she does and all her messages would be marked as read. I also considered setting up her PC an obscure e-mail address (, checking mail for her at the address we give out (, and forwarding/bouncing the good stuff over. Of course, her "real" address would be visible to people to whom she sends mail, or all her incoming mail would be from me with "FW:" subject lines.

You'd think there'd be something designed to do just this, an off-the-shelf solution that gives kids e-mail but lets parents make sure what comes in (and goes out!) is appropriate. Instead, all I can find are ways to spy on my spouse.

To child-rights advocates, I know this raises Big Brother alarm bells, but c'mon, she's five!

To her, using a PC is second nature (she knows how to renew her DNS leases on her PC if she can't get online), and she has uncles, aunties, and grandparents that already send her e-mail via my wife and I. It seems like it should be easy to help her "step up" to her own e-mail account... just one that's not quite as open as she'll probably demand later in life.
posted by pzarquon to Computers & Internet (21 answers total)
It sounds like an ideal use of a whitelist such as KnowSpam

She would get no spam and the people who send her email could be added easily.

Whitelists are a great idea. The only reason whitelists aren't more widely used in business is that we depend on unsolicited email from clients, old business contacts etc and don't want anything to stand in their way. It doesn't sound like that would apply to your 5-yr old daughter.
posted by vacapinta at 11:43 PM on February 8, 2004

Response by poster: I thought of whitelisting, but the problem there is that even people we trust might send stuff we don't want our daughter getting. My father in law tends to send off-color jokes to everyone in his address book, for example, but he's also someone I'd like to be able to correspond with her... if I can check it first.

Also, since KnowSpam gives a free pass to "known humans," that expands the window of possible senders to just about anyone (human).

For what it's worth, the closest commercial solutions I found are Kindermail (which downloads all mail, but a parent login has to approve mail before it'll come up in the kids login) and, which is a monthly service. Both have the added disadvantage of being freakin' ugly. (My daughter will be the first to call someone on talking down to kids. Her desktop is the beach, not a technicolor disaster of Disney characters.)

There has to be a way to do this on my own. I have my own domains, can set up my own POP/IMAP accounts... Grr.
posted by pzarquon at 11:52 PM on February 8, 2004

pzarquon, what operating systems do you happen to run?

Procmail + ask could probably make this happen. If it isn't windows, I can take a look into it. Unfortunately, I have little to no windows email experience (I'm a Pine lover).
posted by shepd at 12:20 AM on February 9, 2004

From what you wrote above the implementation would be something like this:

KidSave email screening:

Incoming email stored on internet email server account.

KidSave retrieves the email from the server and shows it to the Parent.

Parent presses Approve or Delete

Approved email gets stored on KidSave email server (internal). (or maybe uploaded to another internet email account)
Deleted email gets trashed.

Kid logs in, opens normal email program and gets email from KidSave server.

Sending email goes through provider smtp, so from email address can be the internet email account.

I googled around for something that did this, however could not find any software. Maybe you can ask some programmer type to build something?
posted by sebas at 2:10 AM on February 9, 2004

If it were me, I'd set up her email address with an IMAP mailbox, create a folder under the root (call it "Incoming"), and set up a procmail rule to route all incoming mail to that folder.

Then I'd access the mailbox via webmail or an IMAP client and move the approved messages from Incoming to Inbox. Her computer would download email with POP3 and would only get what was in the Inbox folder.

I think that would work... of course it assumes you have your own email server to mess with, or at least a decent ISP that allows procmail and access to mail folders.
posted by mmoncur at 4:29 AM on February 9, 2004

I am struggling with this exact issue right now. What would be cool is if we could get enough people who care about this problem, we maybe could all toss in some $$ and have enough to pay someone to program something along the lines of what sebas describes. (elance?)

pzarquon, please keep me posted offline what you wind up doing about this, and I'll do likewise...
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 5:49 AM on February 9, 2004

A simple hosting account will offer you POP3 and Webmail access. You can set your daughter's email program up, and before she goes in to download the mail, you can log in to the webmail interface and delete all the messages.

The good ones will even offer a spam filter, so you can get a lot of junk in one click, then just clear the rest out manually.

The plus side to this is you can get her own domain name.

Hosting accounts can be had pretty cheap ~$5 a month, plus domain registration varies from 5-10 bucks depending on which top level you choose.
posted by benjh at 6:03 AM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: pzarquon, what operating systems do you happen to run?

For my daughter's PC, unfortunately, the ubiquitous Win98 with Outlook Express. Yes, I know, of all places, this would be a great place to introduce alternative OSes, since she's not pre-sold into Microsoft's kingdom. Give me time!

You can set your daughter's email program up, and before she goes in to download the mail, you can log in to the webmail interface and delete all the messages.

I do have several domains that offer POP/IMAP accounts, fortunately. But again, this setup requires me to check her e-mail before she does, something I can't guarantee.

From what you wrote above the implementation would be something like this [...]

Exactly, sebas. And stupidsexyflanders, I agree that something like this wouldn't be too difficult to program from scratch, if I knew how to program. If the programs I've found to date are the competition, there's lots of room out there for a category-killer app.

Then I'd access the mailbox via webmail or an IMAP client and move the approved messages from Incoming to Inbox. Her computer would download email with POP3 and would only get what was in the Inbox folder.

Hmm, mmoncur, this sounds do-able. I have shell access, and the ability to setup IMAP/POP mail (as well as webmail and pine access). So a single IMAP-enabled account would make subfolders available to an IMAP connection but make the same subfolders invisible to someone connecting via POP?

How would you do this, offhand? I imagine I'd set up the mail account, access it with IMAP to create the subfolder, then login via telnet, figure out where the subfolder is in relation to everywhere else, then setup a .procmail rule to route everything to the subfolder. When I check the e-mail account via IMAP, I'll find all my daughter's mail in the subfolder. When my daughter checks it via POP, she sees nothing (inbox only)... until I've moved messages from the subfolder to inbox.

Tantalizing. Must re-learn .procmail recipes...

Though an off-the-shelf solution would be great, too. I don't mind paying, if it doesn't suck.
posted by pzarquon at 6:22 AM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: Of course, all this still leaves out the other half of everything that would make a program the holy grail of parent PC utilities: the same review-and-approval system for outgoing mail. Lord knows, I'd love to be able to check if she's sending out our phone number or something...

Ah well. Small steps! Thanks for all the thinking...
posted by pzarquon at 6:25 AM on February 9, 2004

I'll have to look into the IMAP thing. I have some domains, but I'm only familiar with POP.

Your last point is a great one -- as bitter, hardened adults, we know how to minimize spam, but my 11 year old is out there downloading browser toolbars, happily clicking around promotional flash sites, and generally just asking for spam (unknowingly) Teaching safe browsing is key.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:13 AM on February 9, 2004

can't you do this with mailman (the mailing list manager)?

you'd need to configure your daughter's account so that the "from" address was a mailing list (configured so anyone can post, but content is moderated). she would be the only person subscribed to that list. when someone mails her you (as the mailing list moderator) get an email asking you to approve the message. you approve/delete the message and and approved messages are sent to your daughter's "real" account (the one that she downloads email from, not the one her "from" address is set to).

depends on how configurable outlook is, but i think that would work. might need a unix box for mailman (yoyu can configure mailman so that reply-to goes back to the sender, not the mailing list - indeed, that's the default).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:14 AM on February 9, 2004

I had my first Hotmail experience the other day, setting up an account for an 8-year old. I was pleasantly surprised: over the past few weeks, no spam. There are spam detection settings, whitelists, turn off images, turn off html, etcetera. IMO, it's good.

I also sent her an email with "the four rules for EMail," which tickled her pink. In it I mentioned the importance of not using that email address on any websites because "there are creeps on the internet who will send you gross stuff."

So far she seems to be taking it to heart. And if she does get some gross spam, it'll be a learning opportunity: I don't think it'll traumatize her. Hell, siblings are more traumatizing than words on the screen...
posted by five fresh fish at 8:40 AM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: Hmm! The mailing list idea is a good one, andrew. My webhost also allows 'mailman' setups, and I can give the list a regular sounding alias (i.e. Someone checking outgoing mail headers on my daughter's messages might see the "true"/list address --, but attempts to e-mail her at the list or the alias address would still be "moderated." Need to think on it more. Experimenting with IMAP/POP combos this morning.

At some point, five fresh fish, I'm definitely going to 'graduate' my daughter to an independent, and somewhat guarded, e-mail account. I don't know how Hotmail's controls are versus MSN versus AOL versus anyone else's, but at some point, she'll be on her own. Probably sooner than for most (appropriately supervised) kids, but still... just not yet.

I agree, she hears and sees things at school and in day-to-day life that are pretty shocking, even for an alt.tasteless fan like me (considering the source). But if she can go an extra couple of years without an e-mail solicitation for horse lovin' I'm all for it.
posted by pzarquon at 9:45 AM on February 9, 2004

i don't follow how anyone would see the "true" address - you can configure mail to come from any address. people would see the originating machine, but not an email address (other than the list).
posted by andrew cooke at 10:20 AM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: Let's say I set up a mailing list as my daughter's e-mail address ( I'm the list moderator. The only subscriber is my daughter's real e-mail address ( Her mailreader is set to show her e-mail address as, to be sure.

Let's say someone sends her e-mail at I log in and approve the mailing list message for distribution, with sends it to Indeed, the list is configured so my daughter's reply goes straight to the sender, and from the surface, the sender will see my daughter's reply as coming from "Name" ><.

Isn't there a way, though, looking at the full headers, to see the from which my daughter is actually reading/sending mail?
posted by pzarquon at 11:19 AM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: You know, if I was insane, I'd set up Exchange, have it quarantine all mail, then manually approve that way before it went to my daughter's inbox. I'm not that crazy, however.

I was also just remembering how one version of Norton AntiVirus I used actually sneakily put itself between my mail client and the POP mail server. My Outlook thought it was checking mail at, but actually it was checking a Norton somethingorother somewhere on my own PC (//localhost/navqueue or something), which in turn did the actual talking to So, it is somehow possible to do something that'd work seamlessly with some mail clients. Mail is downloaded but sits somewhere local and hidden. Admin logs in, approves messages. The next time the POP account user launches her mail client, it grabs the approved message, thinking its from the domain but it's actually from the local queue.

Basically I'm looking for something that'll do what Kindermail does, but doesn't do so with a garish red and yellow interface with giant dinosaur icon buttons.

Whether it's a sneaky between-any-POP-client-and-server hack (allowing kids to use the mail client of choice) or a standalone app... an elegant solution could make someone out there rich.
posted by pzarquon at 11:51 AM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: I know I'm mostly muttering to myself now, but... it worked! The IMAP/POP hybrid solution worked.

I set up a mailbox on my domain. Using an IMAP client, I created a subfolder under INBOX called QUEUE. Using procmail, I forwarded all incoming mail to QUEUE. Then, using the IMAP client, I checked all mail in QUEUE. The ones I approved, I moved to INBOX. The ones I didn't, I deleted. Finally, using a POP client (like my daughter will), I checked e-mail. Only the messages I'd moved to INBOX came through.

Yay! This doesn't solve the outgoing mail issue, but... this isn't a bad compromise. Thanks, stupidsexyflanders, and thanks everyone for brainstorming with me. (I still say a standalone app would rock.)
posted by pzarquon at 1:16 PM on February 9, 2004

It might be worth mentioning that the typical 5yr old isn't going to be receiving very much mail at all.

You could very easily provide her two email addresses, with the first being accessed by your email client; you'd then forward her mails to her second address. Much the same could, really, apply to outgoing mail: she isn't likely to be sending floods of mail out to granny.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:27 PM on February 9, 2004

Response by poster: A good point, but this is my five year old. Heh. She likes to get e-mail (although now through us). She asks to send ecards for major holidays. And at the rate she sends out written mail, I'm sure she'll make the e-mail transition quite easily.

The fact of the matter is, I'm beginning to think any e-mail address will get spam, even if it never gets submitted or exposed anywhere (thanks to randomizing spam software). And a two-address scenario still means her outgoing mail will show her direct address. So for now I want to be able to see what goes in (and out, ideally) until I'm sure she's ready to deal with vi.a.g.ra pitches.

The IMAP experiment was great. I can't wait to get home and set her up!
posted by pzarquon at 2:37 PM on February 9, 2004

On a mac, you could train the junk filter and set up a number of rules in the Mail program to shove all this unwanted stuff to an out of the way box called "Dad" or some such. Then periodically go through it to make sure nothing's in there by mistake that she can be allowed to see. I am pretty happy with how Mail filters out the junk, and if you set up rules requiring various things like her exact e-mail address or stuff sent only by certain people, you'll be set. Of course, she could still peek in there, and it wouldn't solve the father-in-law problem. I'd suggest hitting him upside the head.
posted by Slagman at 4:36 PM on February 9, 2004

Of course any email address is spammable as a simple polling of the POP server(s) will reveal any address in place.

Slagman I would never trust the mac junk filter for such a's just this side of worthless.

Thanks for the thread pzarquon I'm looking for a similar solution myself. I'm in favor of a whitelist at this point. To be honest I don't want to parse her mail. Simply approving who goes on the whitelist will work in our home.
posted by filchyboy at 9:10 PM on February 9, 2004

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