Guest post by Megan Abbott

I’m pleased to welcome author Megan Abbott to Bookfan today. Her novel The Fever  was published by Little, Brown and Company last month.

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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 1R_Megan_Abbott_(credit_Drew_Reilly)[1]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 the feverpanicked 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?

Thank you!

Megan

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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.  

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Guest post by Megan Abbott

  1. In answer to your question: social media was not an issue for my eldest child and my middle son wasn’t that interested. But with my last, she was on MySpace originally, then Facebook, and now she also does instagram, tumblr and a bunch of other networking tools since we moved cross country from her old friends.
    We had a tough time when she was in high school age because she was a victim of cyber-bullying. It seemed like everyone from her school and their extended group of acquaintances (so people she didn’t even know) went online at once and called her names and generally insulted her, or ignored her, for days. Why? Because she was chatting up a boy that another girl had declared interest in! I let her stay home from school for two days because she was hysterical, but then she went back and was able to hold her head up high and ignore the obnoxious ones.
    I am so glad my kids are past this nonsense. When I was in high school (way back when!) we could use the phone to call others and complain about girls that encroached on boyfriends, but it didn’t have the same impact.
    I look forward to reading this book!

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  2. My daughters are both grown and married now. I can’t imagine keeping them safe when they were young with all the media out there. One misstep and the whole world knows it and it follows you forever! My granddaughter has been on an iPad since she was two years old.

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  3. Our youngest (of 3) is 30. So we didn’t have much to worry about other than cell phones. But as a blogger, I deal in a lot of social media – Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. And I think I’m still only barely touching the surface compared to what my 3 kids do.
    Great article, Mary. Thanks for getting Megan’s input. I finished The Fever last week, and it’s a treat to get Megan’s take.

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  4. Thanks for this interesting post, Megan. I’m more than eager to read your book.

    I’m a parent in my forties with a tween boy and a teen girl. Social media is prevalent in my life because of my business but also because as a parent I want to know what it’s all about since my kids are picking up stuff at an alarming rate, that even my techie husband can’t keep up.

    We have family meetings where we discuss the Internet and social media and come up with safety measures and compromises. Parenting in this era is NOT EASY, but it’s possible with good communication between family members.

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  5. Thank you all! So thought-provoking.
    Laura, I love what you say about family meetings. That seems so smart. In some ways, I think this will be less of an issue in the coming years, because even the parents will have grown up with the internet and social media, but right now, that gap has to be so challenging. Also: what it means in terms of privacy. Teens sharing on social media feelings they’d never share with their parents–which creates a weird disjuncture: “I’ll share it with the whole world, but not with you.” So much of that age means having to negotiate a “self” independent of your parents, so the privacy to do so is needed. But “privacy” itself means something very different now.

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  6. Yes, this new ‘age’ of technology is one that some parents don’t even have a clue how to navigate – it IS scary. A big issue is that it is 24-7. I didn’t realize this book had this theme. I am more interested. Thank you.

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  7. I’m a mother of two teenage boys and have tried to navigate their upbringing in an age where the internet and social media has been brought into their lives from a young age. Though I do try and set boundaries on how much time they can use their mobiles and iPads, but it is often the cause of disagreement. I shall certainly be reading ‘The Fever’ and believe it is an extremely relevant theme.
    Many thanks for the interesting post.

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  8. I’m not a parent either, but being guilty of whipping out my phone whenever I have a free moment, I’m not sure I’d want my kids to do the same thing. Thanks Megan and Mary for the post – just starting to see The Fever in store in Australia so I’ll pick it up when I’m next at the shops.

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