Email has been around long enough that it’s become part of the backdrop of life. As evidence for this claim, surveys show that teenagers and young adults already consider email to be passé. The earliest prototype email systems showed up in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that email became ubiquitous. Despite the fact that email has become fairly commonplace, a number of significant risks associated with email still plague Internet users. Some of these risks, like phishing attacks, can jeopardize your financial well-being while other risks, like your clueless uncle who constantly forwards hoax emails, are just annoying.
What is Email?
Email is simply electronic mail, and the postal system metaphor is a great way to understand the basic idea. Email addresses have two parts—the username (“bob”) and the domain name (“somedomain.com”)—separated by the @ sign (“firstname.lastname@example.org”). (Note that the word “email” was anciently hyphenated as “e-mail” or “E-mail” but today it’s a nice clean concatenation since the word has entered solidly into our lexicon.) I’ll leave the technical details as an exercise to the interested reader. You just need to know that email messages get sent across the Internet like everything else, chunked into packets and routed from one endpoint (say your computer) to another endpoint connected to the Internet somewhere. Email programs generally fall into two categories: standalone applications and web-based applications. Standalone applications are like Microsoft Outlook or Mac Mail. Standalone apps also exist on handheld devices. Web-based interfaces require you to open a web browser and go to your mail provider’s site (for example, www.gmail.com or www.hotmail.com). Today it’s common for email accounts to be free, which has contributed significantly to their ubiquity. It also means that your children can possess and manage multiple email addresses that they can use to sign up for a wide variety of services without your knowledge. In today’s teen culture, having multiple email addresses for different purposes is a completely natural behavior.
Benefits and Risks
Email is amazingly useful and efficient. It’s very inexpensive and fast, and provides an easy way to communicate and move documents from person to person.
[W]e win with email when corresponding with relatives halfway round the world at no direct cost; we win when we dash off a message inspired by a middle-of-the-night brainstorm; and we win when we get through to a busy executive, researcher, or recluse we’ve pursued by phone for days.1
As with any technology, email also has disadvantages. Some of the risks associated with email include the following:
- Unwanted or inappropriate content can be delivered via email.
- Technically destructive payloads (like viruses) can be delivered via email.
- Criminals use email to make contact with victims (we’ll talk later about phishing attacks and malware).
- If you receive a lot of email on a daily basis, the sheer volume can be overwhelming to manage (I generally received between 100 and 200 emails a day and recently passed 6,000 emails in my Inbox before taking drastic measures to reduce the backlog in what I affectionately refer to as my “email compost pile.”)
- A fair number of people still struggle with email netiquette, which can be annoying and time wasting.
- For some people there is a draw toward obsessive email checking, which may lead to a variety of problems, in particular the tendency to disconnect from the real world.
The increasing spread of mobile devices has made compulsive email checking a more significant reality. Certainly, anecdotal evidence supports the existence of mobile email addiction; for example, the term “crackberry” was coined for describing the addictive nature of such technologies. Mobile email addiction is a form of non-substance addiction that involves excessive interaction with both a mobile technology (mobile device) and the content (electronic communication) under conditions of psychological dependency. It can be viewed as a special type of a broader Internet addiction, as the latter concept involves excessive email messaging (but also other behaviors such as excessive gaming and sexual preoccupation).2