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November 26, 2012

Slate: Protecting kids online

(Continued)

It was a relief to think about the good the Web can do as I read "Oddly Normal," New York Times reporter John Schwartz's sensitive and perceptive account of his son Joe's suicide attempt at the age of 13. Joe was gay but just coming out when he swallowed handfuls of pills, and he spent a couple of weeks in a locked psych ward after his parents found him in the bathroom. In the period that followed, Schwartz watched his son in fear and then tried to analyze what had gone wrong, at home and at school. He's willing to write about "our own missed clues along the way, so agonizingly clear in hindsight." The best thing about this book is that it's not about blame: It's about understanding. Even the mean kids — so often lately the target of "bullycide" narratives — aren't portrayed as ogres.

Schwartz explains that gay teen-agers are at higher risk than straight kids for attempting suicide, and he talks about the way in which it was harder for Joe to find social acceptance. There was no Gay-Straight Alliance at his middle school, for example, and those groups can be a crucial buffer for kids who are unhappily questioning their sexuality. But Schwartz doesn't demonize the kids who made stupid comments to his son about sex and homosexuality. "It wasn't harassment, since they didn't know he was gay," Schwartz writes. "But because Joseph knew he was gay, the comments — and the fact that he didn't feel comfortable participating — increased his sense of isolation."

It's profound isolation that the Anonymous/Rustle League intervention for Kylie, and MTV's Over the Line? tool, are trying to combat. For some kids, like Joseph, there is help to be found at home — by the end of Schwartz's book, I felt like his son's great luck was to have two parents who made mistakes, sure, but who did their utmost to learn how to support him. That's still the ideal. But even the best parents can't protect their kids from everything the Internet serves up.

Bazelon (@emilybazelon) is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book "Sticks and Stones: The New World of Bullying," will be published next spring.

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