In early September, I wrote a post wondering why social media seems to be all but missing from contemporary YA and MG, even though we know now that the average teen spends nine hours a day online. (That’s over half their waking hours, assuming eight hours of sleep.) Of course, I mused, many adults writing books for teens probably are thinking about their own childhoods, when not everyone owned a smartphone and if you had to use the Internet, you might actually have to go to a cafe to do so. And probably they realized that a bunch of books about teens lying in bed scrolling through feeds and texting each other would not be very interesting. Still, it seems like books could at least give a nod to the existence of social media. Why not a line such as, “Charlotte looked around. She noticed none of her friends were listening; they were all on their phones.” Or, “Peter looked at the table next to him. There was a family of five, all of them on their phones.” Writing a book that incorporates social media does not have to be all about social media and nothing else. Including social media could simply provide a glimpse of what life is actually like for contemporary teens.
Many comments responded to my post by suggesting that including social media would “date” a book. Of course, this is quite possible. However, I believe that it is also possible to include social media in a way that would make it realistic and relevant, without necessarily dating it. “Dating” a book generally means that there are allusions or references that are simply not timely anymore, or that readers will no longer get after the moment has passed, or that the allusions are almost funny. The Backstreet Boys, did you say? Who listens to them anymore? Simply referring to a piece of technology, even an obsolete one, does not have to date the book, as long as it is being used in a way that still feels relevant or still makes sense to the readers. Does Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park feel dated because it includes a Walkman? No, of course not. The Walkman simply indicates that the book is set in the 1980s. And why not? Stories cannot be completely unmoored from all sense of time and place.
To avoid dating a book while mentioning technology, it is best, quite simply, to avoid naming anything specifically or with a proper name. Even if Facebook seems like a social media giant now, already we see teens moving to other social media platforms such as Snapchat. So, yes, saying, “Sara was on Facebook,” could conceivably date a book. However, this does not mean that the book cannot mention “messaging” friends, “scrolling through a feed,” “watching videos,” or “playing video games.” These things are likely to last for some time, even if how we message or play video games changes. And they are generic enough that readers in the future will be able to follow the action. Someone talking to a friend who is not physically present while using some type of “messaging” is not a reference that will likely confuse the average reader.
Finally, we should note that no story can be truly timeless. Even a YA book that talks about going to the mall or having a summer job–all without mentioning social media–technically “dates” itself. First of all, not mentioning ubiquitous Internet and phones makes it seem like the story is set before 2007, when the iPhone was launched. So do the malls and the summer jobs, since we’re seeing malls close as a result of online shopping and we are also seeing that there are no longer as many summer jobs for teens. What seem like “normal” activities to the authors writing these books are not actually activities that many teens growing up today might relate to. And they might be completely gone in the future. But that is not a bad thing. We do not feel the books are “dated” because the references to malls and summer jobs make sense to us, even if we don’t hang out in malls and we don’t know many friends lucky enough to land a job at the local pool or ice cream parlor. The idea of hanging out with friends or trying to earn money are things people can relate to, even if they do them differently than portrayed in books.
Adding social media to books to reflect daily life does not mean every book must revolve around social media or be exclusively about teens posting selfies. Rather, adding social media to books is simply another way to note what life really looks like for teens. Teens are literally attached to their phones–they eat with them, they sleep with them, they (like everyone else) experience symptoms of anxiety if separated from them. And yet our stories make it seem as if social media barely exists at all. But how can we help teens think about their lives and about their social media usage, if we keep telling ourselves that there is nothing to think about?