Maybe I’m just reading the wrong books (I admit I do not often read YA contemporary, though I do enjoy MG books set in the present day), but it has often baffled me that YA and MG books seldom mention how technology functions in the lives of today’s children and teens. Yes, sometimes a character will text or message another character. Sometimes a character might search something on a phone or a computer. Sometimes a character might even call their parents. But, by and large, unless the book is an “issue” book, the stories being written today might as well have been written in the early 2000s, as far as their depiction of childhood goes.
Consider how far we have come in just about decade. Facebook was launched in 2004. Twitter was founded in 2006. The first iPhone was introduced in 2007. And Instagram was launched in 2010. All of this has changed how children grow up. Today, 75% of teenagers are estimated to own smartphones and teens are spending nine hours a day on social media. (That leaves eight hours for sleep and seven hours for the rest of the day’s activities, such as eating and going to school.) And yet, if an alien were to pick up the fall catalog of any publisher and read all of the books inside it, I would be willing to bet that this alien might leave Earth completely unaware that social media and smartphones exist at all. There would certainly be no indication that the average American teenager apparently does nothing except attend school and then return home to surf the Internet!
All of this is of course very alarming. So why aren’t more books talking about these trends? Why aren’t more books, quite simply, reflecting what is apparently the experience of a large number of teens? One answer is obviously that most authors are too old to have grown up with a smartphone. Even younger Millenials will remember a time when Internet access was not ubiquitous. Another answer, however, is equally obvious. Reading a bunch of books about people who passively consume media on their phones all day probably is not going to make for a thrilling read. Maybe again, a good “issue” book–one that deals with cyberbullying, or the pressure on girls to look attractive in selfies, or the dangers of giving out too much information online (not that most people care about Internet privacy these days). But not necessarily a fast-paced adventure story.
Personally, I don’t use social media much and I would rather speak to people in person rather than text or message them. I would rather read about characters making connections face-to-face instead of interacting through their screens. Somehow, these connections seem more real to me because no one can hide behind a screen name or curate a wall of selfies that only show their best side. Face-to-face interactions force characters to have to speak off the cuff instead of spending hours crafting the perfect reply. They force characters to have awkward moments and to sometimes have bad hair days. These types of interactions are valuable because they allow the characters to see each other’s flaws but to still accept each other. There seems to be far less stress and far less pressure this way!
That’s not to say that online interactions lack value, of course. The Internet allows previously marginalized voices to carve out spaces to be heard. It allows people to connect who might otherwise never have met. It allows friends to keep in touch when they might otherwise have faded away. It allows people who feel isolated to find people with similar interests. All this can and should be celebrated. Appreciating face-to-face interactions need not make us into people who would only dwell in the past!
And yet..we do not see many books that take place primarily online. Is there something about watching a character spend nine hours a day on their screen just…boring? Or can we find ways to explore the interior lives of teens who spend most of their day online? What types of social media use would you like to see represented in today’s literature?