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The Dark Side I Can't Protect My Kids From

You cannot have a Facebook account until you're 18. That's one thing I have been firm about, mostly because of cyberbullying stories. This is ostensibly to make me feel like a good mother. But it's laughable, really, the idea that I can control my kids' exposure to the big bad Internet.

Sure, I can do things like restrict access to computers, keep all electronic devices out of their rooms, refuse to let them have gmail addresses or block particular websites. But, in the end, this is like fighting a war with a butter knife.

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My husband and I watch "Game of Thrones," a show we think is too mature for our 15-year-old. So we ban it. Amazing, though, how he knows the entire plot as well as we do.

"Do your friends watch this at home?" I asked him.

"They do watch it," he said.

"Do their parents know?"

He shrugged like it doesn't really matter.

What they can't see at home, they'll see at school: on their phones, their iPods, their smartwatches, anything that charges.

If he wants to watch "Game of Thrones," he watches "Game of Thrones." Somehow.

Another time, I wanted a song on my iPod, but couldn't find a site that sold it.

He took my iPod and brought it back 10 minutes later with the song on it.

"How'd you do that?" I asked (though I didn't really want to yell at him for getting me my song.)

Shrug. (Teenage shoulders should just be permanently attached to their ears.)

Our kids were born with the Internet. When I have a problem with my computer, I don't call my husband, I call my son. Flip-thwack-slide-return-fixed.

My son has kept off Facebook, I think just to humor me. But his gmail address, which he uses to do his homework, keep up with Boy Scouts and play some video games, still opens those kinds of doors. He simply has to be accessible by email, because everything is now planned and handled digitally—from school projects to club meetings to social life.

One day I saw him flipping through his phone like he was on Facebook, so I said, "Is that Facebook?" He said "No, it's Google Plus." His friends are on it. He's on it. It's the same darn thing, which I didn't think to ban, because I didn't know to ban it. I ask him frequently if he's experienced any bullying, anything awful. He tells me he hasn't.

If I ban Google Plus? It's just something else. These kids know how to interact with other kids, how to watch "banned" things, how to access the inaccessible. They are plugged in, and they share information.

What they can't see at home, they'll see at school: on their phones, their iPods, their smartwatches, anything that charges. No longer are the days when you'd go to school and talk with your friends about sex and violence that no one saw but everyone heard about. Now kids can whip out some device and show each other the very scene in question.

He is making these calls, not me. He makes calls before I even know what the question is.

Ban phones? I thought about it. But I like to be informed: "Have an extra band practice after school," "At Daniel's until 5 p.m., if that's OK," "Can you pick me up now?"

He would also be the only one in his circle of friends who wouldn't have a phone. Banning the phone would make me feel like I am socially ostracizing him—his friends arrange everything via text and email.

My son is the one who told me about 4chan. "You shouldn't go there," he tells me. Who's the parent here? He'd come home from school and tell me about stories I had just covered hours ago as a journalist. These kids are faster than the Associated Press.

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This is just reality. Your child will be exposed to all kinds of horrible things via the Internet, no matter how hard you try to shield them. The only way to fight back is to teach them self-esteem and good judgment. These are the hardest things to teach a child, things we don't always have ourselves.

So, I keep my eye on him, on his moods, his decisions. I don't let him keep a lock on his phone (yet another butter knife) but he does hide the screen from me. I think kids are entitled to some privacy, especially during those first-crush years. So I just ask, "What are you doing?" and see what I get.

We have to trust our kids a lot more than we used to. They now have adult life at their fingertips. Stuff we didn't have to deal with or see at their age.

"Do you know about the ISIS beheading?" I asked him.


"Did you watch it?"

"No, I don't want to see that."

I know there are things he doesn't tell me, but I don't want to push him to the point of refusing to tell me anything.

That's a hell of a decision for a 15-year-old to have to make. I'm sure he feels pressure to be cool, to be strong, immune to violence. He and his friends play "Call of Duty" and live atop the leaderboards. But he won't play "Call of Duty" zombies, because "It's just too much."

He is making these calls, not me. He makes calls before I even know what the question is. Somehow, he has to know himself enough to decide whether he can handle what's in front of him. And I have to trust that, at 15, he knows how to manage that line. That seems impossibly young, though he does seem to be doing OK. But I can't be sure that every kid will. If parents aren't involved somehow—and some aren't—it's scary to think of what young minds might do with the things they see.

On the one hand, it's good that my son comes pre-exposed and I don't have to explain to him all the evils of the world. Because that is shocking. Do you remember the first truly awful thing you saw or heard that shook your childhood world?

On the other hand, that's a lot for a kid to handle. But it comes with the territory of Internet access. And I won't ban him from the Internet. He wants to be a software engineer, for crying out loud.

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I just have to assume he's seen it all and try to parent from that place. I ask a lot of questions, we talk about a lot of serious things, we share ideas. I have to be proactive. I have to start difficult conversations.

I know there are things he doesn't tell me, but I don't want to push him to the point of refusing to tell me anything. One of my greatest parenting challenges is battling the dark side of the Internet, which our kids will find, whether we ban it or not. But if we focus on building their characters from the inside out, instead of outwardly trying to control things, we've at least got a chance.

We are on the same side, after all.

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