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Bullies, best friends and phones: Will Covid shift the balance toward real-world socializing? a guest post by Sheila M. Averbuch

Friend Me

“Just be careful,” my husband called out as our teen-aged kids left for the first day back to school. Although mask-wearing was going to be enforced, we still sent them off with trepidation. “Stay away from other people, even your friends, especially if they’re laughing,” he added.

Wow. What a thing to say. I knew where my husband was coming from — how can we keep our kids safe when there’s still an airborne, incurable virus hopping from person to person? — but hearing the words made me realize just how much we’re asking young people to forego this year, their friends’ laughter included.

Here in Scotland we locked down in March: from then on, our kids had almost no contact with friends. At first they enjoyed the break from the grind of school, but then my daughter, especially, began to talk about and long for the chance to see friends in person.

This was new: typically she’d default to her phone for socializing, but a real, face-to-face meet-up was what she wanted most. Video calls were set up as a regular stopgap, but I could see how excited she was for those beach strolls and dog walks: outdoor,  socially-distanced meet-ups where she could hang out with friends in person. Other parents reported the same hunger among their teens to get back into a group and feel normal again.

Face to face, not phone-only

Covid has overturned so many norms, and I think the way tweens and teens use their phones may be one of those. So much has been written about how technology isolates young people and has created that digital default: socializing through their handsets can feel so much more natural than phoning a friend or meeting in person.

Roisin, the main character in my middle grade thriller debut FRIEND ME (Scholastic Press), repeatedly pushes away her brother and other real-world potential friends for her new online bestie. A spark for the story was the day my then 13-year-old said it was his best friend’s birthday; I urged him to phone the boy for a chat and he acted like it was a bizarre suggestion.

This got me thinking: it would be completely feasible for an entire friendship to blossom and grow via the phone, but without speaking to each other. I wanted to explore how and whether this could be a lifeline and a hazard. Can you really know friends you’ve only met through a screen? But if you find your tribe online, should you auto-mistrust them, just in case they’re bad actors?

In FRIEND ME, Roisin is an Irish transplant to Massachusetts who’s picked to pieces by a bully; the girl targets Roisin in school and online. The fact that both Roisin’s best friend and her enemy come to her through the same screen highlights a core problem with cyberbullying: phones are the most personal of personal electronics.

It’s hard to tell young people who are experiencing cyberbullying to stay away from their phones, when the phone has become an umbilical cord to the rest of life, from parental text messages to homework alerts from online classrooms.

It’s even harder for adults to impose rules, boundaries and time-of-day tech curfews unless we model that behavior. The issue here isn’t just the hypocrisy of ‘do as I say, not as I do,’ it’s that we’re putting these most addictive objects into kids’ hands — untested technology, that’s being tested on young people. There’s a reason that many Silicon Valley executives, who created today’s ultra-addictive tech, banned their own children from using the tech: they realized themselves just how hard it was to stop.

The Social Dilemma and the siren call of social media

If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix, you’ll have discovered chilling new insights into the most addictive apps of all: social media, whose algorithms keep users hooked by dishing out dopamine hits of praise on an unpredictable basis. 

The documentary interlaces with a dramatization of social media at work on a ’typical’ American family, including a painfully realistic example of a tween girl who finds the compulsion to post selfies overwhelming. Seeing those likes and comments rack up is an ego boost, but one insult wipes out the positive. The character Isla, played masterfully by Sophia Hammons, can’t stop looking in the mirror and hating herself after one of her followers says her ears make her look like an elephant.

Safeguards for social

There are no easy answers in relation to tweens, mental health, and social media, but cyberbullying in particular is something every teen and carer can take action on right away, following excellent guidance like that from stopbullying.gov. There are best-practice tips on what young people should and shouldn’t post, or repost, and the importance of speaking up immediately about any bullying behavior.

There’s also solid advice on healthy use of apps: including, if you’re a young person, the importance of allowing parents or carers to follow you on social media, to keep them in the loop.

Disabling notifications is always good: it means you’re not yanked back into the app on its schedule, but when you choose. In the case of bullying, screenshot everything; principals and teachers will be grateful for the trail of evidence if they need to get involved.

The fact that our young people are isolated by Covid and in many places learning from home doesn’t protect them from the long arm of the bully. But 2020 has also, by necessity, caused many parents and carers to become more accustomed to technology, which better equips them to use and monitor the apps where bullies prowl.

Technology can be isolating, but it can also be a savior, linking young people to friends, learning and community. I’m also encouraged by the growing availability online of fantastic mental health and mindfulness resources, and the increasing societal awareness that mental health is just health and must be nurtured and protected. 

As long as adults model the self-control and tech-curfews with our own devices that we want our kids to exercise, I think we need to trust young people, and open our eyes to just how much they’re valuing real-world interaction with real-world friends right now.

The trend I’ve seen in my own kids, favoring face-to-face instead of online-only socializing, gives me hope. My daughter recently spent hours one Sunday with her friend group just roaming the parks and fields around us: hanging out, taking pics…and laughing.

ANTI-BULLYING IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

It’s a golden age for middle-grade fiction which tackles bullying and its fallout and demonstrates how young people can cope, thrive and prevail. Here are recommended reads to get you started:

Friend Me by Sheila M. Averbuch (Scholastic)

The Brave by James Bird (Feiwel & Friends)

Looking Glass Girl by Cathy Cassidy (Puffin Books)

Ella on the Outside by Cath Howe (Nosy Crow)

American as Paneer Pie by Supriya Kelkar (Aladdin)

Restart by Gordon Korman (Scholastic)

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado (Nancy Paulsen Books)

Meet the author

Photo credit: Rob McDougall

Sheila M. Averbuch is a former technology journalist and author of the middle-grade thriller FRIEND ME publishing November 10, 2020 with Scholastic Press. Find Sheila at sheilamaverbuch.com

Sheila’s local independent bookshop near Edinburgh in Scotland is the marvellous Portobello Bookshop, which has signed copies of FRIEND ME while supplies last at bit.ly/SMAbuyindie  Or, find FRIEND ME at your own local indie here bit.ly/SMAorder

About Friend Me

Friend Me

What happens when an online friend becomes a real-life nightmare?

Roisin hasn’t made a single friend since moving from Ireland to Massachusetts. In fact, she is falling apart under constant abuse from a school bully, Zara. Zara torments Roisin in person and on social media. She makes Roisin the laughingstock of the whole school.

Roisin feels utterly alone… until she bonds with Haley online. Finally there’s someone who gets her. Haley is smart, strong, and shares anti-mean-girl memes that make Roisin laugh. Together, they are able to imagine what life could look like without Zara. Haley quickly becomes Roisin’s lifeline.

Then Zara has a painful accident, police investigate, and Roisin panics. Could her chats with Haley look incriminating?

Roisin wants Haley to delete her copies of their messages, but when she tries to meet Haley in person, she can’t find her anywhere. What’s going on? Her best friend would never have lied to her, right? Or is Haley not who she says she is…

With twists, turns, and lightning-fast pacing, this is a middle-grade thriller about bullying, revenge, and tech that young readers won’t be able to put down.

ISBN-13: 9781338618082
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date: 11/10/2020
Age Range: 8 – 12 Years

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