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The Online Mom provides internet technology advice and information to help parents protect their kids, encourage responsible behavior and safely harness the power of technology in the new digital world. Social networking, photo sharing, video games, IM & texting, internet security, cyberbullying, educational resources, the latest on tech hardware, gadgets and software for kids 3-8, tweens and teens, and more.

E-Mail & Instant Messaging (IM)

In a generation, e-mail and instant messaging have become the most widely used ways to communicate. Nowadays, everyone you know has an e-mail address, and quite possibly several. And, whether you use it or not, your computer also has built-in tools you can use to send and receive "instant messages." Let's step back a moment and take a closer look at both of these technologies.

"E-mail" is the shorthand term for any electronic communication system that allows people to create, send, receive, and retain messages using "store-and-forward" (your message is sent to an intermediate location, which keeps it, and forwards it to you later when you ask for it).

Custom software

Nowadays, most (but not all) e-mail systems send their messages across the Internet. Many people get their email accounts from their "ISPs" - the people who provide their Internet connections. To work with these email accounts, you use specialized e-mail software. That software comes with your computer: on Windows, it's called Outlook Express; on the Mac, it's simply called Mail. These programs are relatively simple. People who rely heavily on email often use more powerful software, such as: Thunderbird (Windows/Mac/Linux); Microsoft Outlook (Windows); Microsoft Entourage (Macintosh); or PowerMail (Macintosh).

These programs provide text editors in which you write your message, as well as tools for adding attachments such as pictures, documents, or audio clips. When you click Send, they communicate with your ISP's email "server," a special computer that's in charge of forwarding your message across the public Internet towards its destination. As with all information sent across the Internet, your message is split into packets, each with an address. Each packet may follow a different route to get to its destination. When they all arrive, your message stored at another server until someone logs in to get it.

Get it for FREE!

There's another way to get an email account: from a free Web-based service like Microsoft's Windows Live Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, or Google's Gmail. To use these services, you typically log on to the provider's Web site, and create and read messages on Web pages specially designed for the purpose. Many people prefer Web-based email for three reasons: first, because it's free; second, because you can get your email from any computer that has an Internet connection; and third, because you can keep your email address even if you change your ISP. Some people use also free Web-based email as a backup for their primary email accounts.

Sending email is free: that's why you get so much junk email. In fact, the vast majority of email sent nowadays is "Spam": disreputable offers to sell you drugs, illegal software, and other merchandise; phony stock tips; or "phishing" attempts to trick you into revealing personal identification. Many email providers try to keep this junk out of your mailbox, but some of it slips through. Some email software also comes with anti-Spam tools. If yours doesn't, you should consider getting add-on software that does, such as iHateSpam or Cloudmark Desktop.

IM takes over

A few years ago, e-mail was considered the height of technology, but ask your kids what they think of it: chances are, they'll tell you it's yesterday's technology. For many kids, email is the best way to communicate with parents or teachers, but not with their own friends. It's not immediate enough. What is? Cellphone texting, or computer-based instant messaging, a.k.a., "IM."

With instant messaging, your message doesn't wait for someone to check an email account: it appears in a box on their desktop as soon as you send it – and if your recipient sees it, he or she can respond immediately. As with email, instant messaging software is built into nearly all modern computers. And if you don't like the IM setup you've been given, you choose a different one: also free. Today's most popular IM services include AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, Skype and iMessage, but they're not the only ones. One key difference between instant messaging and email is that the leading IM systems don't talk to each other. Until recently, to converse with people, you had to be on the same system as them. Now, though, there is a workaround: free add-on software like Pidgin and Trillian.

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