The Mysterious Case of the Missing Social Media in YA and MG Books

Discussion Post

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?

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45 thoughts on “The Mysterious Case of the Missing Social Media in YA and MG Books

  1. Briana says:

    I agree. I think it’s a combination of many authors being unaware of just how much teens use their phones these days, and the issue that the plot of the book would just get bogged down if the characters pulled out their phones literally every five minutes. I do, like you, sometimes see characters send a quick text or pull out their phone to Google something they need to know to advance the plot, but YA is not at all reflecting the extreme amount of cell phone and social media use a large number of teens engage in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Sometimes I think the authors are unaware. Other times I think, “Wait, aren’t they the generation giving their six-year-olds tablets and phones?” 😉

      And definitely, yes, it’s going to be hard to have a plot about a group of teens who are on their cell phones every hour they are not in school!

      Like

  2. Amanda-Elizabeth Abend says:

    A lot of the fantasy books I go for are typically set in some romantic age-old era that wouldn’t have phones, but I see what you mean. I agree with the comment above, that young adult authors simply don’t realize and/or account for how much technology teens really use today. haha also I feel like a lot of up and coming YA authors are 90s kids right now, who didn’t have cell phones until high school! I read UGLIES when it came out years ago and I think that is still a really good futuristic-dystopian-type society that actually incoorporates teens USING modern technologies daily

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, fantasy is my favorite! I can see how technology wouldn’t always work. Even a contemporary fantasy would be weird with realistic smartphone usage. How are you going to save the world if you’re on social media for nine hours a day? 😀

      Ah, those were the days. I sometimes want to go around and collect everyone’s smartphones in a basket so they actually have to interact with each other. 😉

      Like

  3. hannahpotamus @ peanutbutter&books says:

    I agree. Overall, I don’t see much social media usage or current trends (like memes, youtubers, etc) in even contemporary YA. Part of this might be because the trends die out so quickly, or it might be because like you said, authors are unfamiliar with this generation’s fads.

    However, more and more books are coming out that touch upon the importance of social media in teenagers’ lives!! For instance, I know Eliza and her Monsters does a really good job of representing how online friendships can be just as real as IRL friendships.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Definitely I could see how trends die out. Even Facebook is getting “old” apparently since teens are moving to forums like Snapchat. Still, it seems like there could be generic references to phones and feeds. I can’t go out in public without seeing almost everyone on their phone! But the books I read make it seem like it’s still 2000 and smartphones don’t exist!

      Cool! I’ll have to look into that one! I hadn’t heard of it before!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. kozbisa says:

    I wonder if they don’t want to include something that may disappear. When I went to the Landline release, Rainbow Rowell talked about how she doesn’t like to put a lot of pop culture stuff in her books, because she doesn’t want it to date her books (I am paraphrasing as it’s been years). I agree, I am not seeing a ton of social media use in book UNLESS the book focuses on social media or social media plays a large role in the book. I am seeing more of these types of books – Click’d, How to Disappear, Internet Famous, This is How it Happened, Love and Other Alien Experiences, Alex Approximately, Eliza, At First Blush.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That could be part of the issue. I definitely wouldn’t mention any social media by name if I were writing a book. Even Facebook isn’t being used by teens anymore! But it does seem like you ought to see at least more cell phone usage. Even if the protagonist goes to the mall, probably (I am basing this off my own numbers–I actually like to count the number of people on their phones in a given public space) 80% of them should have a cell phone in their hand/be texting someone they’re not with. But there are just no mentions of smartphones!

      Like

  5. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    I don’t read a lot of contemporaries so I’m not sure how the representation of technology is doing 😅 Louise O’Neill does a really good job of showing the more toxic side of social media (her books are quite dark – but wonderful – in general), but I can’t think of a book that just has teens using smartphones all the time. Then again I mostly read second-hand books, so ones that are a few years old 😅

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I read mostly fantasy so I see how technology doesn’t really make it in those types of books. You can’t save the world if you’re on your cell phone for nine hours a day! 😀 But even with contemporaries, that would be boring, wouldn’t it? How many stories could you read with the protagonist scrolling through feeds and taking selfies all day?

      Like

  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Cool discussion- I will be honest, this is something I am seeing more in contemporaries- like a book I read recently (that I don’t recommend) which incorporated texting, online messaging and social media… buuut I can’t say it improved or helped what turned out to be not a very good book. For me personally the reason why I wouldn’t necessarily care either way is that a lot of the online stuff is about as interesting as reading about someone brushing their teeth (again that might just be me- I’m not exactly a technophile 😉 ) I wouldn’t necessarily say no, but I’m not jumping at the idea either 😉

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I kind of feel the same way. I don’t WANT to read about social media and technology in a book because it’s boring. Maybe the average teen does spend nine hours a day online, but exactly what kind of story would you get from a teen lying in bed scrolling through her feed every waking hour she’s not in school? :/

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        I get that- to be honest I may be biased cos my only experience of this so far has been not good. I open to having my mind changed about this- but yeahhhh I can’t say reading about someone scrolling on fb would be interesting to me :/

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m not really on social media. I don’t understand it. Like, if I have something to say to someone, why would I post it for everyone to see instead of just talking to the person? If I have pictures of me with my friend Bob why do I need to let everyone know that Bob and I hung out without them? Clearly I’m missing something about the appeal of social media. And so I guess because I find it weird in real life, I don’t find it that interesting in fiction.

          Liked by 1 person

          • theorangutanlibrarian says:

            hehehe well I don’t recommend it lol 😉 It’s tiresome 99.9% of the time. That’s why I only use the messenger- but man if you scroll down and see the convos… yikes! hahaha I don’t get it either. That’s why I don’t think I’d like it in books/haven’t liked it in books so far 😉

            Like

  7. saraletourneau says:

    Funny. Cell phone / technology use and social media is something I’ve been trying to keep in mind with my new manuscript (YA magical realism set in the current day), just because they’re all part of a teen’s everyday life. Texting, Facebook, emails, Googling / Siri, etc. – and they’re all important in a college setting, too. (The new WIP takes place during the protagonist’s freshman year of college.)

    But in some stories, online relationships can never take the place of in-person ones. I think it depends on the author’s vision of what they want happening in the story. Sometimes I notice the absence of technology in a YA contemporary or magical realism, but then I have a hard time picturing how technology would actually fit in. It’s… hard to explain any other way, but yes, I’ve noticed it, and yet I’m not always sure it had a place in every story.

    Have you read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell? That’s a good example of cell phone (both calling and texting) and online use by teenage characters.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I admit I don’t actually enjoy stories that have a lot of focus on technology because, as you say, it’s a different dynamic. I also can’t imagine too many stories where a teen spends the average nine hours a day online because…well…that doesn’t leave much room for plot advancement, does it? They would never go anywhere or meet anyone!

      I did start reading Fangirl and I liked it. It does seem to follow the trend, though, of incorporating technology because that’s the focus of the book. You can’t have fanfiction without the Internet!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Fleur @ Fleur Henley says:

    I’ve often thought about this. One of my theories is the idea that technology, at the rate that it’s currently moving along, will change quite soon in the future and authors might not want to put that into their story because of that. An attempt to make their work timeless? I’m not entirely sure, but it seems reasonable to me haha 😀

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I could see not putting in specific site names like Facebook or Instagram, but it’s hard for me to see why it would be problem to mention using the Internet or a phone, or scrolling through a feed. A story can’t be completely timeless. We might as well take out the cars and the shopping malls, too, then since cars will be self-driving and malls are going out of business. But for some reason authors don’t see these things as “dating” their books. Or maybe they still think teens hang out at malls? 😀

      Like

  9. Rose @ Hey Bookish says:

    I love this post.It is true that we don’t see people being addicted to their phone in books.It just seems messaging or something else.That’s part of the reason I love ELIZA AND HER MONSTERS by Francesca Zappia. She showed this wonderful world of internet friends.I haven’t read any other books with the same portrayal as this one.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Right? I can go onto any bus or elevator or into any restaurant, and the majority of the people there will be on their phones. In a college classroom, every single student will have their phone in their hands at one point, even the ones you might describe as “focused.” Yet books don’t even give a sentence to this, such as, “Betty looked around. All her friends were texting.” It’s so strange to me! I’ll have to look into Eliza and Her Monsters!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Milliebot says:

    Very interesting point! I’m not sure how much modern contemporary I read, but you’re right. Maybe it’s an attempt to down play social media for younger readers and take some of the importance and focus off it…

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That could be. They might not want to make nine hours a day online seem normal or positive. :/ Though I have read that teens underestimate their usage to four or five hours, so it might be useful to point out that the reality is different?

      Like

      • Milliebot says:

        True. Maybe some also feel is not relevant to their story? I don’t want to read about people always eating, sleeping and using the bathroom either – I know it happens, I can fill in the gaps

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I guess I don’t see social media usage as necessarily on the same level as using the bathroom since statistically one takes up 9 hours of the day for teens and the other…shouldn’t. However, I don’t think that the entire book or every book needs to focus on this new reality for teens. An author could just throw in a line such as, “Charlotte looked around and noticed no one was listening to her; they were all staring at their phones” or “John entered the elevator. The man next to him was pretending to text.” It gives a sense of what life is like, without making the whole book about it. Kind of like mentioning your character going to the cafeteria every now and then. The book doesn’t have to center around what the character ate or mention it every day the character goes to school.

          Like

          • Milliebot says:

            True true. Lol I hope they don’t spend 9 hours in the bathroom! But you’re right, often times eating or dressing is mentioned and social media/phones aren’t. Now I’m curious what the last modern ya/mg novel I read was. I wasn’t even aware this was missing until I read this post.

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              I don’t necessarily miss it, either, and I actually dislike it in books. Maybe because I’m not really on social media, nor am I attached to my phone. (In fact, half the time I’m not entirely sure where my phone is.) And, as you say, it’s hard to see it fitting into many stories. (“Scene: a YA protagonist has just saved the world. She takes a selfie in front of the vanquished villain.” That would almost read like satire.)

              At the same time, I keep reading studies showing how prevalent social media usage is or showing that people actually experience anxiety symptoms when parted from their phones. Which certainly makes social media seem like a big deal for the teens reading these books.

              Like

            • Milliebot says:

              Omg I would love a post vanquished villain selfie scene. Hahaha. But then again, I’m not sure what type of villains inhabit contemporary YA.

              But you would think it would be more prevalent. I recall reading the princess diaries and they often used email and that was in the 90s.

              Liked by 1 person

  11. Rachel @ Chocolate and Chapters says:

    I’ve thought about this a few times while reading! I think you’re right that a lot of smart phone/internet usage in books can be boring. That’s a big reason it’s not there, for sure. Personally, I don’t like seeing much phone/internet usage in books because I think it dates a book in the worst way. Yes, we know these things are around. But can you imagine if an author chose to include scenes in their book where their characters are on MySpace? Or some other antiquated technology that was all the rage at a certain time? It would annoy us. Or at least it annoys me to no end when I see recent technology mentioned as if it’s totally current. Like you said, technology is changing constantly. We live in a digital age where they never stop improving upon what we already have. So it’s hard to stay up-to-date with technology in books unless they just don’t mention it much at all. Anyway. Those are my ramblings thoughts!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I can see not mentioning specific sites to avoid dating books. However, it’s not possible to pretend a book occurs in a historical vacuum. Simply placing the teens in a mall technically dates the book since statistics show that teens aren’t hanging out there anymore. And malls are closing and being replaced by warehouses. I think it’s quite possible to show a character using a phone, sending messages, or viewing videos without dating the book. These things will likely be around for some time, even if in different formats/on different sites. As far as I’m concerned, not putting these things in “dates” all these books to the early 2000s anyway, since we’re pretending smartphones aren’t ubiquitous!

      Like

  12. Carrie @ Cat on the Bookshelf says:

    The writing advice of today still admonishes the use of technology that might date the book. I still hear it in creative writing classes, so I think that perpetuates the problem. Lately I hear more about being unsure of the era in a book as unclear. Well, technology would help that. I’ll list the technology I would like to see:
    – Selfies. The term came into being when I was in high school, so I would like to see teens in YA take selfies.
    – Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, Skype, and Musical.ly are up for grabs. Admittedly, I saw Tumblr in Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda.
    – The use of smartphones and tablets. They are part of everything now.
    – Teens getting angry with school rules about technology use. Or parents grounding them from their phones.
    – Streaming services like Netflix, Crunchyroll, or Hulu.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think naming a specific site or company might date a book but don’t see why we can’t mention pho as or scrolling through feeds or messaging. We cannot pretend the books aren’t going to be dated by something else anyway. Malls are supposedly becoming obsolete. But no one worries about mentioning them. Sometimes the theme of a book or its length dates it. Pre-Harry Potter YA is easily dated by its short length.

      Like

    • Briana says:

      That’s really interesting that that’s given as writing advice. I understand the concern about dating yourself too much, but I do think that would apply primarily to being overly specific or using brand names. At this point, it seems that overly avoiding technology makes it look like the book is either happening in some wishy-washy “no-time” or as if it’s happening in , say, the late 90’s or early 2000’s because authors seem to have no problem mentioning things like phones, TV, or other things I think classify as technology. :p Honestly, so many books have such short shelf lives, I’d be please if someone were reading my book twenty years from now at all! (I mean, if I wrote and published a book, which I have not….)

      Liked by 2 people

  13. DoingDewey says:

    I would love to see more technology in contemporary fiction for all age levels and honestly, I’m inclined to think that it’s often missing because it makes plots based around misunderstandings or missed connections so much harder to explain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I always laugh when I see books where the author have to go through some convoluted explanation of why the characters just didn’t explain things to each other. Phone’s dead! Character is refusing to read all texts! No service in this mid-sized city! :p

      Like

      • Krysta says:

        It is the worst when it is a character who ought to know better than to go out without charging their phone. Characters should not have to act out of character to advance the plot!

        Like

    • Krysta says:

      I find it odd, but, at the same time, I admit I don’t really like stories that have a lot interactions taking place through technology. So I guess I’m not sad just confused. 😉

      Like

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