Hello everyone! I’m very excited to have on the blog today Gabrielle Reid, the author of The Things We Can’t Undo, a great new addition to the #LoveOzYA community, talking about the impact and consequences of social media in our lives today, and most importantly, YA fiction. Don’t forget to check out the links too at the bottom to see where you can connect with Gabrielle and buy her book! TW: discussion of mental health, suicide and sexual assault.
I never set out to write a story about social media. This was going to be a book about consent, about teenage relationships and friendships. Social media crept its way in, I guess because teenagers use a lot of it (so do adults!). And it made sense – I learnt about rape crimes like Steubenville and Brock Turner from social media. When stories broke about blatant misogyny at Sydney University, and later, universities in general, they were shared across my Facebook feed. Discussing issues from behind a screen is part of life these days, and so is reading the opinions of complete strangers.
To be clear, I don’t take a negative view of the internet. There’s a tendency for adults to talk down to teenagers about these issues, as if teens who have grown up online don’t know that their words can be taken and twisted or that someone can take a screenshot and keep their words forever. Teens continue to use social media because despite these concerns and privacy issues, it has a heap of benefits. So I wanted to show the benefits too.
It’s in the name. “Social” media is inherently social. It’s where we can reach out when we’re lonely. There’s research suggesting it may contribute to depression or anxiety, depending on its use, but it’s also where people with depression and anxiety who can’t bear to leave their house can still talk to others about what they are feeling. It’s where we share our lives with friends who have moved away or who go to a different school. We all need people, and it’s foolish to think that connecting with them online is any less of a relationship than the relationships maintained by letters centuries ago.
In my book, social media is the first place Samantha is able to be honest and admit what happened to her. She’s talking to a friend who she is also close to in real life, but a messaging app gives her the ability to speak when words won’t come and to cry in the safety of her bedroom while she has this impossible conversation. Likewise, the first person in her life to recommend a helpline is a stranger on the internet. She finds support from people who have been through similar experiences and come out the other side. These people are all ages, all backgrounds, and never meet in real life. But they offer an empathy that even her best friend can’t give.
Sam’s not unique in that regard. Very recently, a private Facebook group I am a part of was filled with messages of concern for a member who had posted on our private internet forum that she was on the verge of taking her life. It was through this group that she was given the number for Lifeline and encouraged to call. Myself and several other members who have previously been hospitalised for depression spoke from experience when we told her that it can get better. People who knew her in real life were tagged so they saw the post ASAP and could call her to ensure her safety. Thankfully, she read the messages of support and made the phone call to Lifeline.
However, it’s also true that there are dangers online. We’re better at making our accounts secret these days, but if we comment on anything that helps to narrow down our location, our privacy is still very much at risk.
I realised this possibility after a police officer came to talk about online safety to a school group that I had been teaching. He searched the school’s facebook page, found the name and face of a student in the group, then put the student’s surname and the school suburb into an online phone book, found his address and located it on google maps. Suddenly the projector screen in front of us had a street-view image of this student’s house. He was thirteen. This became the basis for a threat to one of my characters, whose passion for her cause leads her to forget to take extra precautions around revealing her real name and location.
I don’t believe that people are necessarily more opinionated today than they were a few decades ago. But in the past, when people heard or read about a story, sometimes with little detail, their thoughts on the topic were restricted to dinnertime conversation or chats with a small group of friends. The ability for social media to bring strong opinions together and galvanise people is unique. Again, this can be a force for good, such as when crowds of protesters were able to gather at airports within hours of President Trump’s immigration ban, or donate money to legal teams without leaving their workplace. But it can also be damaging, when people become unable to self-moderate, or unaware when they’ve crossed a line. The wrong people can take opportunities to wreak havoc, and often innocent people are caught in the crossfire. This is what happens to one of the characters in my story, although I won’t spoiler it anymore than that!
In the end, I hope that what I have written shows the reality of life in an increasingly connected world – both the good and the bad. I didn’t want to preach to teenagers who use technology daily and have no doubt experienced some of these things firsthand. But social media is so ingrained in our society, it would have been impossible to write this book without featuring it.
Gabrielle Reid is an Australian author based near Newcastle, NSW. She has previously worked as a high school English teacher and still does creative writing workshops in schools from time to time. Gabrielle has published short stories in a variety of literary journals and regularly posts on her website and blog. The Things We Can’t Undo is her debut novel, published by Ford Street. It is available from May 1st in Australian bookstores.