I’m pleased to welcome author Megan Abbott to Bookfan today. Her novel The Fever was published by Little, Brown and Company last month.
I’m not a parent. I need to say that first. Like many of the characters I write about (especially the criminals!), I haven’t experienced what they have—I’m just imagining my way in. But The Fever was written specifically from a point of sympathy and respect for the unique challenges of being a parent today, particularly the parent of teenagers. And I don’t mean the typical, eternal challenges of navigating the relationship with your child as they chart the stormy waters of adolescence. I mean the new challenges posed by what might be the most striking technological generation gap in decades. That is, today’s teens have grown up with the internet, with social media. They never knew the world without it. Their ideas of communication, of connection are inevitably different from their mom’s and dad’s. And the world they know is a brave new one from the one their parents experienced.
It’s always dangerous to make sweeping statements about the teenage experience. We’ve all heard or read those statements like, “Teens today have no sense of privacy,” or “Teens live their lives online now.” Generalizations, truisms. But the fact remains that most parents today experienced the technological changes of the last four decades gradually—the web, email, Google, texting, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. But for their children, the world has always been a partially online experience. The notion of a public and private self is inevitably different. What intimacy and connection means has changed. Today, one can feel intensely close to someone who lives half a world away and can feel deeply alienated in one’s own school or classroom. And, whereas thirty years ago, gossip among teens operated through passing notes, through whispered rumors, today, one text message or Instagram photo can shatter a reputation, set one’s identity, spread like a virus. The “wired” world both gives (you may never feel alone) and takes away (you may never feel alone).
In The Fever, the power of social media to spread rumors, ideas, images proves mightier than anyone can imagine. But in the novel it’s a dangerous temptation for the parent and teen characters alike. Many of the teens, including Deenie, the protagonist, have trouble having a truly private, undocumented moment (when nearly everyone has a phone, and all phones have cameras, privacy can prove elusive). And nearly all of the high schoolers struggle with escaping the frenzy of their social world because their phones, their computers, social media means the school day, in some ways, never really ends. But likewise, several of the parents in the novel do what many of us might do: turn to the internet to try to solve the mystery of the illness befalling many of the girls in the book—and the internet, for those seeking answers for baffling medical conditions—can be a dangerous place, ripe with misinformation, conspiracy theories, the spread of fear.
There’s a moment in The Fever when Eli, the teen hockey player and reluctant girl magnet, can’t find his phone. At first he’s panicked and soon enough it becomes a tremendous relief to him. No one can reach him. He’s alone with his thoughts. He can go anywhere. He’s “off the grid.” While writing it, I began to think about how that experience was my everyday experience as a teen. I never thought of it as a freedom. In fact, I would have loved to have been in constant contact with my best friends. But would that have made me a different person, and how? And how would it have been for my parents, who could track me down wherever I was? With whom I’d have had a relationship possibly largely mediated through texts?
I admire so much the parents I know as they try to imagine their way into their child’s very different world. As they try to anticipate the dangers and the benefits of social media and the online world for their son or daughter. The obvious risks (online predators, etc.) are in some ways the easiest to educate your children about. But what about the more subtle ones, such as the addiction to feedback some of us experience online, as we seek those Facebook “likes” and Twitter “favorites”? Do they come to seem as needed validation for ourselves or our teens?
Parents of teens out there, how do you handle your child’s experience of social media? How does your high school experience compare with your son or daughter’s because of it?
Megan, thank you so much for your thought-provoking post. In my case, Facebook began while my youngest (of three) child was in college. Before then my biggest challenge was making sure they didn’t spend hours on the computer playing Oregon Trail or Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego before finishing their homework! They all had phones in high school but not smartphones. In retrospect it was a much simpler time – although raising teenagers at any time is never easy.
I hope readers will weigh in with their experiences in answer to Megan’s questions.