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I distinctly remember the day when I realized I was no longer in control. It was four years ago, and I had signed up to be secretary for the PTA of my daughter’s lower middle school. (What was I thinking?) Each month, we brought in a guest speaker, and that particular morning, the topic was online safety.

The very knowledgeable (and young) man from the district attorney’s office began the meeting with a quick survey. “How many of your kids have Facebook pages?” he asked. A tiny percentage of the mothers there raised hands. “All right,” he told us, “I can pretty much guarantee that more than half your kids do. Maybe closer to 75 percent.” This was sobering. Our kids were 10, 11, and 12 years old. Facebook doesn’t accept members under the age of 14, right? The very young man from the D.A.’s office was there to tell us that what Facebook formally stipulates doesn’t matter.

Because, apparently, online no one knows you’re underage.

It was still fairly easy to assume he was talking about some other mother’s daughter. Until he showed us the video Everyone Knows Sarah. I sat up straighter as neighboring moms whispered and nudged. Sarah looked exactly like my daughter. Exactly like her. I think that video was really my wake-up call. This wasn’t someone else’s problem, and it wasn’t going away.

Sure enough, my daughter moved quickly from my hand-me-down laptop to her own (faster, newer) MacBook and iPhone. In terms of social media, Facebook was just the tip of the electronic iceberg. Tumblr, Instagram, YouTube, ooVoo, and now Vine. It’s a constant challenge to keep up, because the social media channels and mobile apps evolve faster than my daughter can text—and believe me, she can text!

The challenge as a parent is this: How do we set rules for something we don’t really understand?

If you’re the parent of a teen, you’re familiar with the phrase “You don’t get it.” Guess what? We don’t. When it comes to digital life, we are immigrants. Yes, we’ve arrived in this brave new world, but its ways are not second nature for us. We still romanticize the old country. “When I was your age, we only had three TV networks.” “When I was your age, we only made long distance calls on Sundays.” “When I was your age, we listened to record albums.” Blah blah blah.

Our children, on the other hand, are natives. They don’t remember (and certainly don’t reminisce about) our old ways. Why would you buy a record? Why would you use a landline? Why would you write a letter? Their Facebook friends are their “real friends.” Their online life is their “real life.” We want them to assimilate and succeed in this new place. But we want them to honor our ways as well. Maybe we want too much.

If you asked my daughter to describe my digital parenting style, she would roll her eyes and use words like “strict,” “old-fashioned,” and “unreasonable.” Indeed, we waited until she started middle school to get her a smartphone, which meant that we—as she told us in no uncertain terms over and over and over—were humiliatingly late to the game. As one mom I know recently put it, “The most lenient mother in the neighborhood makes life difficult for the rest of us.” Many parents I know gave their kids cell phones in elementary school to facilitate afternoon pick-ups and carpool arrangements. One family armed their preschooler with a cell phone after she slipped through the cracks at daycare (it was a false alarm, thank goodness, but one that scared them into wanting the perpetual connection a mobile phone promises). Other moms have agreed to phones earlier than they might have because they feared that their child would be ostracized if he or she didn’t have one.

My daughter also complains (often and with great vigor) about the rules we’ve set. If I were going to offer one piece of advice to mothers of younger children, it would be to set the rules up front. It’s very difficult to retrofit them after the fact. One family I know actually drafted a contract and had their teenage daughter sign it. My own daughter was so desperate for her iPhone and all that comes with it that she agreed to some pretty stringent rules. The phone stays in the kitchen overnight, not in her room. Internet access shuts off at 8 p.m. on school nights and 9 p.m. on weekends. Maximum daily online time limits are set automatically through the computer’s parental controls.

Of course, all of this means that I have to override the system when homework runs late or if I’ve agreed that she can stream one of her favorite shows. But it’s worth it. For the record, my daughter hates these rules, but she knows they are not negotiable. She also knows that I’ll snoop. I have all of her passwords and I can check her laptop and phone activity. I don’t do this often because (a) I actually trust her and (b) who has the time? But, again, she understands that the possibility is there, and that this is part of the deal.

We hear so much about the predators, the bullying and the self-destructive stupidity that goes on online. From day one, I’ve impressed upon my daughter that nothing on the Web is private and everything on the Web is permanent. In reality, there’s a greater chance that your child will post something damagingly dumb than that they’ll be contacted by a pedophile. There are plenty of stories about college acceptances being revoked—and just as many about adults losing jobs, marriages, and more. “Called in sick today. Headed to the beach.” Sheesh! Kids aren’t the only ones who need to use some common sense online. And every parent I know bemoans the fact that our kids would rather sit in front of a screen than go outside or play a game or read a book or . . . pretty much anything.

On the other hand, Internet access and mobile computing offer unprecedented access to research, information, and culture. Several parents I know worry that this glut of data doesn’t encourage kids to use their judgment or think for themselves. One mom describes Google as a co-parent. “Go ask Google,” she says when a question stumps her. The best teachers today are encouraging their students to use the Web but to think twice about the sources they cite.

There is an upside to all of this, though. One of the positive things about parenting in the digital age is that you can jump in and find new ways to connect with your kids. In other words, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. My daughter texts me from school sometimes when she needs advice about how to approach a teacher or how to deal with some new cafeteria drama. (Yes, they’re allowed to text at school.) I’ve learned to answer her succinctly—with acronyms and emoticons, and without punctuation, I’m sorry to report. She’s inviting me to speak her language, and I do my best.

My last piece of advice is to help your kids understand and adopt their own system for managing their digital activity, staying safe, and staying smart. After all, the Internet isn’t going away, and they will have to learn how to shut it off (or shut it out) when they need to. In the long run, you have to set guidelines, model good behavior, and then have some faith. At some point, you have to realize that you cannot possibly control everything.

After all, this is their world . . . and welcome to it.

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  • Toni Myers July 2, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    I want to forward this to all parents I know, those with kids still young enough to listen.
    It’s amazing how many adults miss this message, Anthony Weiner only one case in point. It’s a public space filled with predators of all kinds.
    Thanks for this excellent reminder.

  • ellen sue spicer-jacobson July 2, 2013 at 12:11 pm

    Great advice! Extremes of any kind are to be avoided and the constant connections through iphones & the like are not necessarily real relationships. Also, even if you did not lay down the rules at the get-go, you can always sit down with your child and say the rules have changed. You are the parent and setting boundaries is your job, even if it comes later.
    The sonnet The World is Too Much With Us (late and soon) by Wordsworth is right on target! Thanx for sharing your thoughts.