Educating Students to Use Email Responsibly

An old essay of mine combining emerging technologies (one of my favourite topics) with education (I am glad I did not become a teacher!)



Email is used by virtually everyone today in the workplace, school, and home. Email can be as simple as a note to a friend, or it can involve sending large files as attachments to someone on the other side of the planet. As with all technologies, email can also be misused, allowing some senders to do everything from harassing others to sending viruses. An examination of email misuse suggests the need for teaching computer ethics and proper use of email to students so they can recognize and refrain from engaging in mistreatment of this valuable tool.

Email: An Introduction

Email works well in business, providing the business person the ability to quickly receive information or to connect directly to customers. Email use varies from sending simple written messages, to software programs, to sound files, to graphic files and provides services to with companies like AOL and MSN. Those using online services may retrieve information from databases, just as they can send messages. Other advantages to using the Internet include the cheaper cost once the user is connected through an Internet Service Provider. However the Internet can be the most problematic for users because they have to learn a series of commands allowing them to send and receive mail. Email means the transfer of mail by electronic means. It has distinct advantages over both traditional and new messaging methods because of its speed in comparison to the postal service and the lack of need for courier services. But, email also has drawbacks, including the fact that it raises concerns about security threats and the need for user training time and costs to be included as far as businesses switching to this system is concerned.

A History of The Internet and The Development of Computing

The computer is so widely used today that it can be found in products we may not associate with the computer at all like television sets, ovens, coffee makers, clocks, ovens, DVD players, and in cars. The computer age developed rapidly from the days of mainframes to powerful handheld devices.

Computer characteristics are more uniform today then a few years ago, and many have technical similarities. However, businesses utilize and build advantages differently through extensive research and development initiatives, aimed to better design their components and other features to better serve the business. We use computers today in ways that makes them seem invisible, not only in the more obvious personal computers we use at home and the larger computers we may use in such places as banks and libraries, but also in microchip technology found in the previously mentioned household appliances (i.e. television sets, ovens, coffee makers, clocks, ovens, and DVD players) in addition to video games, cell phones and other electronic toys. The growth of popularity in computers was extremely fast. The period after 1970 was known as the fourth generation of computing, and this era was dominated by the microchip which gave computers the capability of placing over 15,000 circuit elements. In 1971 the first microprocessor chip was brought to market. The 1977 personal computer was becoming established and microcomputers began to attract real business in 1979. Creative developments in software design fueled the sale of hardware, and through the 1980s, the microcomputer eclipsed the mainframe and mini-computer markets.

Email found a home first in certain large corporations. Once this aspect of the business was established, it took longer before the big email providers, including MCI and Sprint, perceived that between Fortune 2000 corporations sending email by local area networks (LANs) and hackers who were trading information on bulletin board services (BBS), there lay a huge and important market in small and home-based businesses. It was for these small businesses that email would become a crucial component providing needed flexibility and access to information for clients. The growth of the Internet, a massive web of networks, online services, and BBSs was also crucial to the proliferation of email and the Internet. This has been found to be one of the most effective areas of email for the home entrepreneur, allowing them to do business with large corporations on a one-to-one direct basis. Email can be used for much more than messages, for anything that is in digital form–software, sounds, and graphics files–can be attached to an email message.

Email communication bears a resemblance to more traditional means of communication, such as a phone call, a memo, a letter, or a conversation, but it also has some unique attributes that create fundamental differences between these types of communication. First, email is a new, different, and still developing medium, and understanding the email milieu is crucial to using it to achieve and foster effective and credible communication. Electronic mail and conferencing serves as an equalizer, or a democratization of both personal and professional communication and a certain degree of anonymity to cross or ignore more of the traditional channels of communication is allowed. Individuals who are less outspoken in a traditional conversation or meeting might feel more comfortable if asked to explore ideas or speak out on issues when using email, which does not have the element of stage fright in its makeup. This may also encourage the de-emphasis of professional positions or status as well. Although email shares the immediacy of telephone or face-to-face conversations, it’s as permanent a medium as the written word. A unique feature of email is the ease of redistribution of the message in its original or an altered form, and ownership of the message or its content is fuzzy at best.

Presently, electronic delivery of information to the user has become more useful primarily because of the widespread use of email systems and networks, and email is now widely recognized as a convenient and cost-effective means of communication. Originally devised as a technology for employees of major corporations or other users of computer systems, email has evolved into a ubiquitous instantaneous communication medium for personal use. Email has now become a business in its own right. In addition to email systems developed specifically for facilitating user communications, mail capabilities have been added to systems originally developed for other purposes, such as its use by most of the major online retrieval systems and public packet-switched networks.

There are also email networks, such as those at many universities, governments, and corporations. These are linked through the Usenet, Internet, and Bitnet networks, all of which operate on the same principle and are based on the UNIX system. These networks are interconnected through gateway machines. Until recently, connections to other networks were either difficult or nonexistent. The fact that there is a developing international standard for data may make a difference, and this standard, designated X.400, will be more important when the various networks are brought into conformity with it.

A concern raised about email is the issue of privacy. Users would like email to be as private as the U.S. mail system, but it is clear that interconnecting computers makes it possible for a number of intrusions into privacy by those with the capability of doing so. The concern for privacy through the possible intrusion of electronic data-processing equipment is of relatively recent origin. Developments in technology have created greatly advanced capabilities and an associated reduction in cost for this type of equipment. There has also been a growth in volume and in the complexity of everyday transactions using the computer, and this has further enhanced the spread of the technology throughout the world. The first experimental models of computers were installed in the late 1940s and the early 1950s, and the number had reached 300,000 by 1974. Today, however, there are some forty-eight million individual systems worldwide, and growth is expected at an even further rapid pace for some time.

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 is the only existing law governing email. When writing the law, legislators had to consider many types of communication and the often conflicting needs of law enforcement agencies, the corporate world, and academia, and they also had to balance the need for confidentiality with the question of ownership. The ECPA addresses the use of cellular phones, satellite TV, paging devices, electronic surveillance for counterintelligence activities, and electronic communications. Under the law, there is privacy protection against both interceptions of electronic communications while in transition and against unauthorized intrusion into email stored on a system. The government may intercept or access email under the authority of a court order, and the email service is required to make a backup copy of the requested information. The government must notify the customer that his or her mail has been subpoenaed, and the customer then has fourteen days in which to contest the court order.

Even with the security issues that are being addressed, the ease of use for email is an attractive alternative to traditional mail because its arguably harder to lose, fast, and its ability to send and receive potentially important messages quickly over long distances.

Potential Abuses of Email:

Along with the benefits of email have come various types of abuse, including spam, phishing harassment, and use in inappropriate circumstances. Most such abuses are found in the business world today, and many companies have fought back by developing email policies and imposing these on employees. Many corporate companies include in their handbooks their procedures for unethical jokes, junk mail, improper pictures, and unprofessional chit-chat through their email systems. In many more companies, employees are finding that any mail sent through the company email connection can be researched, pulled, printed, and disciplined if it does not meet a certain criteria.

Email abuse affects private parties as well and has become more widespread due to ethic policies. It’s also becoming a vital subject for students, who need to learn the proper way to avoid improper use.

Spam is familiar to everyone with an Internet connection, for it is the junk mail of cyberspace, advertising and other messages sent unbidden to computer users across the nation and around the world. It is not unusual for a computer user to find his or her mailbox filled with such messages, and people can get a hundred or more a day when they are listed in email directories, have a website, or join website membership clubs. These people usually have not asked for this influx of email. Many may find it difficult to get through it or to weed out what they want from what they do not, and spam becomes so tedious that many users close their accounts in search of a fresh start. Sinister, vulgar, and racist messages are not uncommon in a person’s email, along with viruses that can damage the receiver's computer. Spam is what makes email users remember the similarities between regular postal mail and email. In either one, users end up with mail they do not want nor do they remember ever requesting.

Phishing is a form of unwanted email that constitutes the fraudulent attempt to gain access to the recipient's private information. For instance, the individual may receive a message from his bank, with everything looking real because it has the logo and other identifying marks in the email. The message may claim that there is a problem and that in order to resolve it, the recipient should send in his account number and password for checking. In truth, the individual would be sending this information not to the bank but to a third party who would then use this information for the purpose of identity theft, allowing the thief to create accounts in the recipient's name and wreak havoc with his finances and credit rating. Anyone who answers such a message is unknowingly asking for trouble. Sadly, the only way they will figure out that this “company” is a faux is if they were to go to the actual provider’s website, and use the “Contact Us” link directly. Many times, the legitimate company has no idea that another “company” has access to their clients until someone reports it.

As noted, businesses have many problems with email. The widespread use of the Internet by private individuals and business means that more and more people are familiar with how to access, search, and retrieve information from the Net. However, this also creates issues for businesses in that employees may be using the Internet on company time to access sites other than for business purposes. This trend includes the sending of emails to friends and family. Companies have come to see this as damaging to their productivity, with employees wasting time rather than working, but it has also created liability issues because these emails and Internet searches are being performed with company equipment, meaning that whatever actions the employee takes may come back to haunt the company.

Whatever the rationale used by individual companies, more and more companies seek to curtail such Internet use and have addressed the issue with written policies, direct monitoring, monitoring by technology, or the use of software to block certain sites or certain kinds of material, with different effects. Many emails that are deemed unrelated to the company are sent back to the sender. Also, at the bottom of many company emails, from personal experience, I’ve found that there is a warning that says something to the effect of:

This email and any attachments are for the sole use of the intended recipient(s) and may contain privileged and confidential information. Any unauthorized review, use, disclosure or distribution is strictly prohibited. If you are not the intended recipient(s), kindly contact the sender by reply email and destroy all copies of the original message. These messages also usually have the company name at the bottom, so there is no mistaking what company information is intended with this message. The current dilemma that companies have after they have caught an employee using the Internet for unrelated use is to understand the scope and nature of each individual issue, the means undertaken to address it, and how effective those means may be.

There is wide variation noted in corporate policy on this issue, raising the question of the parameters of the solutions offered and some of the reasons why there are such wide differences. Certainly each organization is different, and also the Internet usage by employees and by the company as a whole varies dramatically by company. Still, there may be certain variables which can be identified to suggest why certain policies or solutions are pursued more often by, say, large companies rather than small. This analysis may suggest some policymaking guidelines as to what a company should do in order to protect itself on this issue and to increase its productivity while maintaining good employee relations, always an important consideration. Certainly, there are very harsh measurers, which could be introduced, though these might be counter-productive and might strain employee relations with management to the point where more damage is caused by the cure rather than the disease.

Among the variables that can be considered as potentially significant are the following:

  • 1. Size and nature of company, number of employees, number of servers , computers, and so on.
  • 2. Current bandwidth and efficiency of current network.
  • 3. Nature of web presence and common use for the company (website, ecommerce orders, email, etc.)
  • 4. Network problems reported by help desk (e.g., pornography site access, computer viruses, exposure of sensitive corporate data to risk, excessive non-business email use, etc.)

One other element is likely very influential in this regard, though its influence may be different for large companies as opposed to small. That element would be competition: in this case meaning that if every other company in an industry is instituting a corporate Internet policy, this fact may create pressure for others to follow suit. This raises the questions of whether such pressure includes the means undertaken to combat the problem, meaning that if a leading company puts monitoring software in place, will that be the method used by other companies in the industry, or will companies make their own decision on the basis of research, experience, or some other criteria.

The methods that companies use range from the clearly managerial, meaning the writing and dissemination of guidelines, to the technological, meaning the use of monitoring or blocking software. Some see the answer to every technological issue as more technology, while others believe that this only complicates the issues and is unnecessary. The reality may depend on the nature of the problem, and the problem is only technological in that this equipment provides an opportunity which is utilised by human beings. One good solution may be to consider human behavior, and managerial solutions do that by attempting to change behavior and by creating a framework for doing so. Technological solutions may simply not try to change human behavior but instead be based on the view that human behavior cannot be changed, so making certain behavior impossible or extremely difficult is selected as the effective solution.

The improper use of email affects subordinate employees, as well as management. Good employee relations must be maintained by any company undertaking to control Internet use. The nature and size of the issue is becoming greater as more and more companies work to develop a clear policy on Internet use, doing so because of concerns about productivity and liability. If your workplace has Internet access, the odds are good that where you go and what you do online is constrained by company policy. And if your company doesn't have a directive spelling out what constitutes acceptable behavior on the Net just yet, it probably will very soon – regardless of whether an internet abuse problem exists.

The issue extends back to at least the mid-90's, which was before the emergence of the Net became mass medium. At this time, the federal research facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory found that one employee had made more than 90,000 pornographic images available by means of a company server, after which the site logged more than 17,000 downloads before the laboratory was finally able to stop the employee.

By the end of the 1990s, SurfWatch, a Los Altos-based company producing Net-filtering software, could report that the number of companies with Internet-use policies in place increased from 31 percent to more than 50 percent over the previous nine month period. A second study reported that of the companies that did not yet have a policy, half intended to implement one within a year. Such policies might begin with a few pages in the handbook but were more commonly including network surveillance software for the workplace either to monitor or block use to prevent a variety of non-work uses.

One of the core issues is the viewing, collection and trading of Net-borne pornography, which can create a legal issue of sexual harassment from other employees or can product a public relations problem for the company if the practice is exposed. A second major issue is email that is harassing, obscene, racist, sexist or otherwise inappropriate, a problem experienced in 1998 by financial giants Citicorp and Morgan Stanley because of racist jokes that originated on the Net and circulated through the company’s internal email systems. A third problem cited is the fear that employees sending too many emails or hanging around in chat rooms may unwittingly divulge privileged information or write personal messages that could be misconstrued as official company communication.

In 1999, the issue was brought home by the firing of twenty-three employees of the New York Times at the company's shared-services center in Norfolk, Virginia for sending “inappropriate and offensive” emails. These were personal emails sent to friends or colleagues, and while the employees may have thought these were private messages, they were not treated as such by the company. They were fired “for violating a company policy which states that 'communications must be consistent with conventional standards of ethical and proper conduct, behavior and manners'”. Employees of the Times under the policy are not allowed to “create, forward or display any offensive or disruptive messages” on company computers, and this policy was developed in order to protect the company from potential sexual harassment claims that might be filed by employees concerning the transmission of explicit material.

Within a few months, the press began reporting on the growth of monitoring of employee Internet use by employers and the reasons for it:

A growing number of employers are using surveillance software to crack down on personal Internet use at the office. Most cite productivity issues, although many say they want to avoid legal liabilities that could stem from offensive emails. Still others say they want to prevent leaks of confidential business information (Software sleuths shadow employees check for abuses of 'net, email, 2000).

A survey completed by the American Management Association (AMA) came up with the following statistics:

38 percent of major U.S. companies check their employees' email; 54 percent Monitor Internet connections; Out of an estimated 2,100 firms who responded to another survey, 17 percent had fired employees for misusing the Internet, 26 percent had given workers formal reprimands; and 20 percent had issued informal warnings.

What constituted misuse differed from company to company. It was also stated at the time that the number of offenses reflected the fact that the Internet was relatively new to most users and that the novelty would wear off in time (Software sleuths shadow employees check for abuses of Internet, email, 2000).

The nature of the issue today is given prominence in a report from the site Internet Filtering Software, which claims that one-third of time spent online at work is non-work-related, that misuse of the Internet costs American corporations more than $85 billion each year in lost productivity, and that 80 percent of companies report that employees have abused Internet privileges. Many companies have been attacked by hackers in recent years and 75 percent of those companies that have been attacked in this manner see their own employees as the likely source of these attacks. Related to this is the fact that 45 percent of businesses report unauthorized access by insiders. Among the other problems cited are excess use of instant messaging, file sharing using company computers, employees accessing pornography sites (with 70 percent of pornography downloaded between 9 am and 5 pm), and listening to Internet radio. Also suggestive of employees accessing non-work-related cites is the fact that one in three companies reports the detection of spy ware on their network, while 82 percent of companies have been hit by viruses and viruses (Employee Internet Use 2004).

Shymkus (2002) also states that the more reliant companies become on the Internet for business use, the more opportunity there is for employees to abuse Internet use. In addition to issues of productivity and liability, Shymkus cites bandwidth issues, noting that more non-business use of the Internet can slow down the company network server and make normal work that much more difficult (Shymkus, 2002).

Motwani (2003) examines the nature of the issue and the means undertaken to address it, finding that one method involves deterrence, or imposing sanctions on those who abuse the policy to deter others from doing so as well. The researcher finds that companies do use deterrence to counter Internet abuse, while two other approaches, detection and prevention did not show up as often.

As the nature of the issue grows and as more and more people indulge in personal use of the Internet, though, this perception may change. With the added question of liability being added by management consultants and lawyers, more companies may see a need to protect themselves from a cost they cannot yet envision.

Overcoming The Challenges of Email: The Future

Even accepted email can be a problem, as was found when a survey was conducted by one company that turned up a problem with the high volume of email being generated and received, as the manager noted:

“My managers were getting 200 to 300 daily emails. People were so enamored of it that they weren't talking to each other. They were hibernating, emailing people in the next cubicle. They were abusing it (Dickerson, 1997).”

Email abuse has been found more and more in schools recently, along with other types of computer abuse. Bailey (2004) notes that this increasing misuse of technology in society at large requires a response in the schools, and also that the education context is a space where much misuse takes place:

“The endless list of misuse and abuse includes hacking into school servers, using email to intimidate or threaten students, illegally downloading music, and plagiarizing information from the Internet, using cellular phones during class time, accessing pornographic websites, and playing video games during class (Bailey 2004).”

Some students also abuse email by developing viruses and sending them to others, and computer students with questionable ethical principles are often responsible for that sort of activity. Ross (2004) further notes that calls for teaching better Internet citizenship standards requires action by schools now to teach the proper use of email and other Internet functions.

According to ISTE's National Educational Technology Standards (NETS), the Standards for students, teachers, and administrators have been shaped to address Social and ethical issues. One set of standards for students covers three very broad areas: “* 1. Students understand the ethical, cultural, and societal issues related to

* 2. Students practice responsible use of technology systems, information, and 
* 3. Students attain positive attitudes toward technology applications, and this can then support lifelong learning,          collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity. (Ross).”

These three areas were created for understanding and practicing student development in a technological world. These rules are also helpful to teachers who want to enforce correct use of technological equipment. While students are steadily reported for lack of enthusiasm in using the Internet for educational and research purposes instead of for fun and students consistently using plagiarism, teachers needed a set of guidelines for the students to follow. This way, there will be no misconceptions later down the line when a teacher may have to discipline a student for being dishonest when using their assignments or computers improperly.

Bailey (2004) offers a five-step approach to try to alleviate improper use of Internet services. She refers to the Digital Citizenship Audit, that would verify whether the program in schools are being used for constructive purposes or is the school’s money and supplies being abused by student computer users who would rather use the computer for their own personal fun. The five steps Bailey recommends are:

“* Step 1: Complete the Digital Citizenship Audit.

  • Step 2: Analyze the results using the scoring guides.
  • Step 3: Get the technology leadership team to examine the following questions once they have completed the audit:
    1. Is there a significant problem?
    2. If there is a significant problem, how aware are teachers, students, board members and community members?
  • Step 4: Engage stakeholders in a discussion of the audit findings and extend the discussion to include the following questions:
    1. How do I use technology?
    2. How does my technology behavior impact others?
    3. What courtesy do I extend to others when I am using technology?
    4. When using technology, does my behavior infringe on others' rights?
    5. How do we use technology to learn new ideas?
    6. Do I act responsibly when using technology?
    7. Do I act in a way to keep myself safe when using technology?
  • Step 5: Design a digital citizenship program in the individual school (or district) that deals with the appropriate technology behavior (Bailey, 2004).”

Such a program should be developed to teach what Bailey calls digital citizenship. Some of the lessons should be self-evident–one should not be threatening people or harassing them whether by email or other means, but some do so by using email as a remote result for the technologically savvy who cannot be traced.


Perhaps it is inevitable that a ubiquitous technology used by so many millions of people will generate abuse by some. Some abusers have criminal purposes, some are simply rude, and some make use of the technology for their own purposes, with no regard for how this affects others. Students get caught up in these activities for the thrill, to show how adept they are at this technology, because they do not know any better, and for other reasons. What is needed is a stronger statement of the rules for email use and eventually some means for enforcing those rules, but the process begins with students and employees who make relevant use of company-related computers. With companies' having different views and procedures in each department, there is not one specific standard of Internet and email use. Each company must tailor their regulations to fit their professional and personal needs, goals and culture. The desirable outcome is to eliminate potential problems with employees and the Internet before it gets out of hand.


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    Retrieved from 12 Nov. 2005, 31-35.

    * Dickerson, J.F. (1997). Lost in the email. Time.

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  • Plotnikoff, D. (1998). Some companies watching closely how their workers use the Web. The News & Record, Piedmont Triad, North Carolina.
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Software sleuths shadow employees check for abuses of 'net email. (2000). The Cincinnati Post, Cincinati, OH.

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