As Craig highlighted yesterday, this summer we’re focusing on some of the central challenges parents face with regards to parenting in the digital age, with the goal of educating you and your parent communities with the knowledge and tips you need to protect your kids from dangers like pornography, cyberbullying and peer-related threats.

A question I often receive from the media relates to whether the Internet is corrupting our youth.

There certainly have been many reports that highlight the dangers of the Internet.  For example, researchers in Canada recently found a strong association between teen computer and Internet use and engagement in multiple-risk behaviors, including illicit drug use, drunkenness and unprotected sex.  The study, published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, concluded high computer use was associated with approximately 50 percent increased engagement in smoking, drunkenness, non-use of seatbelts, marijuana, illicit drug use and unprotected sex.  The research was based on social cognitive theory, which suggests that seeing people engaged in a behavior is a way of learning that behavior.

And, earlier this year, I had a conversation with a school resource officer who shared the following:

“Ten years ago, we knew which kids were setting the pace for ‘risky’ behaviors.  I could point out who was most likely to be throwing the parties, selling drugs and hooking up at school, but today, a lot of our kids are looking to their peers online.  They share videos of binge drinking tricks from around the world.  They are exposed to explicit videos and can learn how to make drug paraphernalia at the click of a mouse.  They see kids that look like them engaging in risky behaviors and receiving a positive response online.  Their exposure to this content has normalized and sanitized some these behaviors, and so the amounts of kids engaging in these behaviors has seen a sharp increase with the popularization of the Internet in our school.”

So, should we sequester our kids to a cave?

The good news is that the Internet is good news.  While there are many dangers, through the Internet, kids around the world have greater access to educational, multimedia and communication resources and tools.  A new report by the Young Adult Library Services Association, online communities and social media, as summarized by Anne Collier, “provides an ideal environment for teens to share what they are learning or to build something together online; allows teens to receive feedback from librarians, teachers, peers, parents, and others; helps to create a sense of community (as do the physical library and school) and in this way are already aligned with the services and programs at the library and school; gives young people the opportunity to learn how to be safe and smart participants; and prepares youth for their futures as they learn valuable life skills using these tools for communication that are widely used in colleges and in the workplace”.

Yes, kids have access to a wide variety of content, behaviors, messages and a broadened peer-network through the Internet, and yes, some of the content, behavior and messages they see and hear can be very damaging, however, when kids have active, involved parents and mentors in their life, young and old adults who set positive examples and healthy boundaries, and parents that utilize the many helpful technology resources available (i.e. filters, time-limiting software, etc.), kids are far less likely to encounter the “bad” side of the web.

As we often find when we dig into the research, kids that exhibit risky behaviors online typically also exhibit risky behaviors offline, and far too often, their parents are clueless or absent when it comes to parenting in the virtual world.

Your actions, your personal involvement and your investment in your child’s life, both online and off, will determine whether your kids will have easy access to the corrupting influences online or the positive, educational influences online.

Over the next few weeks, during this parent campaign, we will be focusing more specifically on pornography and the sexualization of our kids.  As we dig into these issues, remember not to overreact; the Internet is not “bad”, but it has been used for some bad things.  Ultimately, we want your kids to be able to enjoy the many benefits of the web, free from the dark side.

We will also be stressing the importance of parental involvement and communication throughout this campaign, and we want you to start communicating today.

Ask your kids to show you their favorite places online.  Ask them what they are doing to protect themselves online (engage their thinking skills!).  Have they or their friends encountered anything scary?  What did they do?

Consider investing in parental control software (we recommend Safe Eyes).

Talk to other parents in your community, and find out what your school is doing to educate kids to be safe online.

We also would love for you to share your own stories about what has worked and your own “lessons learned” with regards to parenting today.  Each week, we will be posing a question for you to answer, and at the end of each month, we will post some of the most helpful feedback you all provided to encourage one another as we parent in the virtual world—stay tuned for more information about this later this week.