Talking to kids about scary chain emails

scared kid A few weeks ago, I had chance to talk with elementary school parents about internet safety. It was a great evening and a chance for me to discover what problems young kids were encountering in the digital world. One of the concerns that came up was scary chain emails. These chain emails usually start with a frightening story and end with “if you don’t send this to 5 friends, I will come to your house in the middle of the night and kill you with a butcher’s knife.” Quite a few parents shared how upset their child had become upon receiving such a threatening email.

At home, I asked my 3 kids about scary chain emails. Predictably, my tween and teen rolled their eyes. My eldest recalled at time in 5th grade when they all sent around these emails. They were excited to have their first email accounts but received so little email they started sending each other chain emails. It is easy to find examples of funny and scary chain emails online. Both of my older kids said these emails were not a big deal and most of the time they simply deleted them.

My youngest was not so dismissive. In fact, he was concerned and confused by how the stranger would have gotten his email address. He thought if the stranger knew his email address, they could also know where he lived. To him, these threats seemed within the realm of possibility. Honestly, I was little surprised by his reaction. Our conversation was a reminder that I still needed to talk to him more about evaluating digital content.

First off, we talked about how someone cannot find your home address through your email address. I reminded him how when we signed up for email. He only shared his name and birth date and this information is protected via his password. (I also slipped in a quick plug for choosing a strong, unique password). Most likely, this email either came from someone who guessed his email address or a friend forwarded the email. Either way, the original author does not have his home address and does not know where he lives.

Second, we discussed how these stories are not real. These chain emails have been floating around the internet for a long time. A great place to check for the origin of these stories is on Snopes investigates chain mails and other urban legends and provides reliable explanations. Here is an example of how to dissect one of these stories for a kid. Snopes not only investigates the different versions on the web but takes a part the story as well. A quick lesson in critical thinking.

Finally, kids should never forward these emails. Some of these emails may a contain a virus so you want to nip these in the bud before they can infect a computer. The best thing to do is just delete them so that no other kids will get scared or have nightmares. For more information on talking with kids about chain emails, check out the blog Media!Tech!Parenting! by Marti Weston which has a lot of information on protecting kids from email hoaxes, scams and viruses.