I've spent a lot of my life watching children -- as a parent, and then working with parents of troubled teens. I've seen so many adolescents gravitate towards the wrong thing like moths to a flame. Even if they don't dive into the fire, they almost can't help but be drawn to it.
It's nothing new that teens put peers' input above that of their parents. But what has changed? The input comes not just from classmates and neighbors, but from complete strangers who enter our children's lives through their virtual world -- the Internet.
When it comes to teenagers, it's no surprise that social media is their virtual playground with 93 percent of teens checking YouTube weekly.
Why does this concern me?
Over the last year, we've gotten just a rough idea of how much bad stuff kids can find on YouTube. Last May, researchers from a non-profit consumer group, the Digital Citizens Alliance, searched YouTube for videos that came up after entering "buy drugs without prescription." The organization's researchers found 38,000 videos and these findings were featured in newspapers and network television newscasts.
This news coverage of Digital Citizens' initial research forced YouTube to take down many of the videos. However in February, less than a year later, Digital Citizens did a second review on the same search term and it still produced 17,000 videos! More disturbing was that it showed a sharp increase in videos for Percocet (up 37 percent), tramadol (up 42 percent), and Oxycontin (up 108 percent), with many pushing purchases of these painkillers without a prescription.
Teens, drugs, and the Internet: it sounds like the perfect storm.
Many question why Google, who owns YouTube, would allow this type of behavior to continue.
Follow the digital trail.
Digital Citizens showed that these videos come with advertisements running alongside them. That means Google makes money on them... a lot of money. Of course everyone is allowed to make money; however, when it puts people -- especially children -- at risk or in danger, shouldn't there be guidelines or protections in place?
When a reporter asked Google for a comment last June about Digital Citizens' first report, the company's response was:
"We take user safety seriously and have Community Guidelines that prohibit any content encouraging dangerous, illegal activities. This includes content promoting the sale of drugs. YouTube's review teams respond to videos flagged for our attention around the clock, removing any content that violates our policies."
Another reporter asked about the newest research for a story this month, a Google spokesperson responded with virtually the same scripted reply.
No new answers despite increasing concern about how Google does business. A Digital Citizens survey showed that 88 percent of Americans agree that Google has a responsibility to make the Internet safer. More than half (53 percent) say Google isn't doing enough. When asked if Google should not be able to profit by using ads from illegal or illegitimate products or services, 57 percent agree that Google's conduct is not okay. As a parent, I want to be hopeful that Google wants to do the right thing for our children; it should be their corporate responsibility.
A recent spate of stories following the Digital Citizens' findings -- including news that YouTube has 200 "trusted flaggers" screening the site for inappropriate videos and a new, sanitized, kid-friendly version of YouTube with content designed for the 10-and-under set -- indicates that Google recognizes there is a problem, but they plan to address it on the company's own terms.
But why can't Google just promise to stop running ads next to videos promoting illegal or illegitimate products or services, especially when they know that the youngsters like to frequently visit YouTube?
Everyone from parents, to young children, to veteran CEOs is looking to Google to see how the company deals with its YouTube problem. We all want Google to do the right thing; let's face it, everyone young and old turn to Google at some point during their week.
As parents we are forced to blindly trust the giant (Google) to protect our kids in the virtual world when we aren't there to monitor their activity.
The Internet is the neighborhood where the children of the 21st century hang out. Cleaning up the Internet, making it safe for all who visit there, has to start at the top with the biggest and richest company. If Google acts responsibly, or we consumers begin to hold them accountable, it is much more likely that small companies and other entrepreneurs will follow suit. Google has a mantra, "don't be evil," but someone has to show Google that "don't be evil" is not the same as doing the right thing.
• Learn more about cyber-crimes at Digital Citizens Alliance.
• Communication is key to prevention, keeping an open dialog with your teen.
• Don't allow revenue to control the Internet. Your voice can be powerful. Use it!
• Awareness is part of the resolution. Pass this on to a friend.