By Annie Finnigan
Why we worry: Kids are plugging in to all the wrong things: time-wasting sites like Quizilla! ("What Horror Picture Are You?"), blogging venues where they blather on about nothing, and YouTube videos showing kids doing stupid pranks and worse, like huffing inhalants.
Relax. The reality is: the Internet offers an educational experience kids can't get anywhere else. Nearly 60 percent of teens who go online post something they've created -- a song, home movie, or full-length novel -- according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. And they can get props from peers across the country and around the world, which "encourages them to think as individuals," says Henry Jenkins, PhD, co-director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. I used to fret that "Internet-ese," with all those acronyms and emoticon symbols (you know, like those little smiley faces), might vanquish Gracie's verbal skills. Silly me. "Kids haven't put away standard English -- they've become, in effect, bilingual," says Cassell. That has some surprising brain benefits. "Bilinguals can function better while distracted," she adds. "They view the world through two lenses, not one."
Still, get smart by: helping protect fragile egos, since the feedback kids get can be negative and downright nasty. Anyone who stars in his own YouTube video, for instance, risks being slammed about his hair, his body, even his sexuality. Tell your kids to ignore online bullying and give them a lesson in constructive criticism by logging on to sites like metacritic.com and pointing out thoughtful reviews versus moronic ones. Have them read the Blogger's Code of Conduct (blogging.wikia.com) to make sure they mind their own manners when they're dishing it out.