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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

Book Review: All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

Publisher’s description

ra6Calling all Raina Telgemeier fans! The Newbery Honor-winning author of Roller Girl is back with a heartwarming graphic novel about starting middle school, surviving your embarrassing family, and the Renaissance Faire.

Eleven-year-old Imogene (Impy) has grown up with two parents working at the Renaissance Faire, and she’s eager to begin her own training as a squire. First, though, she’ll need to prove her bravery. Luckily Impy has just the quest in mind—she’ll go to public school after a life of being homeschooled! But it’s not easy to act like a noble knight-in-training in middle school. Impy falls in with a group of girls who seem really nice (until they don’t) and starts to be embarrassed of her thrift shop apparel, her family’s unusual lifestyle, and their small, messy apartment. Impy has always thought of herself as a heroic knight, but when she does something really mean in order to fit in, she begins to wonder whether she might be more of a dragon after all.

As she did in Roller Girl, Victoria Jamieson perfectly—and authentically—captures the bittersweetness of middle school life with humor, warmth, and understanding.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

alls faireWell, this graphic novel is just delightful. Imogene Vega, who has always been homeschooled, is going to attend traditional school for the first time. She’s pretty nervous—a feeling plenty of kids will be able to relate to, whether they’re new to their school or not. Imogene’s family works at the Renaissance Faire and she’s excited to finally be able to train to be a squire. But while she feels comfortable and like herself at the faire, middle school is a different story. Suddenly there are cliques, queen bees, the “right” clothes, bullies, and so much more to navigate. She falls in with a group of three girls, one of whom is extremely nasty, and while she doesn’t really have anything in common with them, they do offer some feeling of belonging. It doesn’t take Imogene long to see that fitting in may not be as satisfying as standing out.  With plenty of bumps in the road and impulsive (and bad) choices, Imogene takes a while to find her voice and figure out what version of herself to present in middle school, but when she does, watch out! Excellent artwork, quirky (in the best sense of the word) setting, and super relatable themes. An easy hit for fans of Roller Girl and fans of graphic novels in general.

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher

ISBN-13: 9780525429982
Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
Publication date: 09/05/2017

Choosing Whose Words Have Power Over Us, a guest post by author Meg Kassel

I loved the movie Labyrinth as a little kid. Aside from being fascinated with David Bowie, I liked the main character, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), whose baby brother is stolen by Jareth (Bowie), the Goblin King. The only way to get him back is to defeat a formidable labyrinth, with traps and twists that render it nearly impossible to navigate. Despite Jareth’s taunts to give up, Sarah enters the labyrinth to save her brother and makes some unusual friends on the way. There is a poem, which if Sarah could remember the ending to, would negate the Goblin King’s power. But she can’t remember the words. . .

blackbirdofthegallows

This movie stuck with me. I’ve watched it numerous times, at different stages of my life. Because, well, David Bowie, but more so because Sarah represented. Steely resolve, determination despite terrible odds, and resilience in the face of a cruel foe. It isn’t surprising that these books, movies, music, make an impression on a writer when they start creating work. There is a bit of Sarah in all my heroines, and certainly in Angie Dovage, the seventeen-year-old main character in my debut, Black Bird of the Gallows.

Early in the book, Angie’s traumatic past is exploited by a bullying classmate, Kiera, who makes a point of informing Reece, Angie’s new neighbor and hot new addition to the student body, about the troubled years Angie lived with her late mother. Angie flees the cafeteria in humiliation and shame. She also hides her musical talent behind a disguise, afraid that if her true identity is known, she and her music would be rejected. That’s where she is in the beginning. That’s where lots of teens are, and that’s where I was at various points in my life. The words of another can devastate. In Black Bird of the Gallows, Angie becomes swept into a fight for survival, as events unfold, both natural and supernatural. She learns to trust herself. She learns to choose who has power over her. Late in the book, she faces Kiera again, although this time, the bully must rely on Angie for assistance. Kiera hasn’t changed. She’s still as petty and small and unkind as ever, but Angie IS different. And that’s what makes this interaction so different from the first.

labyrinth

There were times in school when I felt intimidated, belittled, by another. There were mornings I walked to the bus stop with a pit in my stomach and sweat on my palms. It’s a horrible feeling, and one I usually kept to myself for fear of compounding the bad feelings I already had. There was no defining moment that ended those feelings for me, but many little lessons. Many tiny revelations. Growth that came in the form of a thousand pricks on the finger. Life is always changing. We DO get to choose whose words have meaning and whose does not. At some point in Angie Dovage’s journey, she decides that Kiera’s words do not. If I hadn’t chosen to disempower the negative voices in my life, I wouldn’t be a writer now. Creativity can’t flourish without some level of personal empowerment. Creativity and fear don’t mix. In Labyrinth, Sarah’s journey eventually finds her face to face with the Goblin King. She prevails because she owns her inner strength, sees a larger world, and finds the words which have been with her the whole time: “you have no power over me.”

Black Bird of the Gallows Official Description:

A simple but forgotten truth: Where harbingers of death appear, the morgues will soon be full.

Angie Dovage can tell there’s more to Reece Fernandez than just the tall, brooding athlete who has her classmates swooning, but she can’t imagine his presence signals a tragedy that will devastate her small town. When something supernatural tries to attack her, Angie is thrown into a battle between good and evil she never saw coming. Right in the center of it is Reece—and he’s not human.

What’s more, she knows something most don’t. That the secrets her town holds could kill them all. But that’s only half as dangerous as falling in love with a harbinger of death.

 

Buylinks: https://entangledpublishing.com/black-bird-of-the-gallows.html

Add to Goodreads TBR: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33509076-black-bird-of-the-gallows

 

MegKassel-HeadshotAbout Meg Kassel:

Meg Kassel is an author of paranormal and speculative books for young adults. A New Jersey native, Meg graduated from Parson’s School of Design and worked as a graphic designer before becoming a writer. She now lives in Maine with her husband and daughter and is busy at work on her next novel. She is the 2016 RWA Golden Heart© winner in YA.

Author Links:

Website: http://megkassel.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/megkassel

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/megkasselauthor

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/seemegwrite/

tumblr: https://megkassel.tumblr.com/

Newsletter: http://megkassel.com/newsletter/

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8353652.Meg_Kassel

Book Review: Draw the Line by Laurent Linn

Publisher’s description

draw the lineAfter a hate crime occurs in his small Texas town, Adrian Piper must discover his own power, decide how to use it, and know where to draw the line in this stunning debut novel exquisitely illustrated by the author.

Adrian Piper is used to blending into the background. He may be a talented artist, a sci-fi geek, and gay, but at his Texas high school those traits would only bring him the worst kind of attention.

In fact, the only place he feels free to express himself is at his drawing table, crafting a secret world through his own Renaissance-art-inspired superhero, Graphite.

But in real life, when a shocking hate crime flips his world upside down, Adrian must decide what kind of person he wants to be. Maybe it’s time to not be so invisible after all—no matter how dangerous the risk.

 

Amanda’s thoughts

About 3/4 of the way through this book, Adrian says, “I’m not going to let people put me in some stupid category anymore, be a blank canvas for them to put on me whatever they think I am or want me to be. I’m going to show them who I really am.” (Am I the only one who immediately thinks of Cameron’s similar speech in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? “I’m not going to sit on my ass as the events that affect me unfold to determine the course of my life. I’m going to take a stand. I’m going to defend it. Right or wrong, I’m going to defend it.”) And he does. Adrian spends a lot of the story working himself up to this point where he feels like he has to not only reveal his real self but start standing up for himself and for others.

 

When we first meet Adrian, he’s anonymously publishing an online comic about gay superhero Graphite. He’s gay but not out to anyone but his two best friends, Trent and Audrey. He tries to steer clear of the school bullies, Doug and Buddy, who are constantly spewing homophobic slurs. When he witnesses Doug assault Kobe Saito, the school’s only out gay kid, he’s forced to stop hiding and being anonymous. He isn’t sure what he can possibly do to help, though. Doug’s dad is the sheriff and the cops aren’t interested in what the truth is—clearly Doug was provoked, according to them, and it was self-defense. The administration at school is just as unhelpful. Audrey urges Adrian to speak out about this, make a big deal about what happened, seek out justice. Trent thinks Adrian should just lie low so he doesn’t end up getting beaten unconscious too. Adrian doesn’t know what he can really do—but he’s starting to realize he needs to do something. When he begins dating a classmate (who he never even guessed was gay, much less into him), Adrian starts to feel a little more comfortable in his skin and begins to take his stand. Through his artwork, he sends the message that it’s okay to stand up and speak out. To his surprise, Adrian learns that not everything is as cut and dry as Doug just being a horrible bully. He goes from thinking about revenge to thinking about how villains can turn into heroes, maybe. He continues to use his art to push his message and seek change. Why destroy when you can create?

 

Peppered with pages from Adrian’s comic, this is a powerful story about discovering who you are and standing up for what’s right. The heart of the story centers on a hate crime, but there’s also a lot more going on. There’s a really sweet romance, interesting friendship dynamics, and family issues. Through a local LGBT center and his new boyfriend, Adrian begins to find more of a community and make more friends at school. Well-written and engaging, this is an important addition to all collections. 

 

Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Edelweiss 

ISBN-13: 9781481452809

Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books

Publication date: 05/17/2016