My guest today is Nicola Mar, author of the newly released Santa;. Welcome to OpEdNews, Nicola.
JB: You tackle a very difficult and sensitive topic. Tell us about it, please.
NM: Santa; is the story of June, a teenager who is assaulted and then bullied and cyber bullied until she feels so isolated that she thinks her only option is to commit suicide. This story was inspired by three girls who have been in the news over the last few years. They were all in similar situations. Sadly, they committed suicide because they were attacked so viciously. This is not an easy topic to talk about and it was not an easy topic to write about. However, I'm hoping this novel will bring awareness to this very serious and very real problem that our country faces.
JB: Who's the target readership for this book? Adults? Teens? Do you have to write differently depending on the audience?
NM: The target audience is teens because I want to raise awareness in that age group. If a teen is being bullied, he/she will be able to relate to the main character and understand that they are not alone; others who are bullied feel exactly how they do. If a bully is reading this book, I hope it will create an empathic bond. Having said that, adults who read the book can better understand exactly what is going through a teen's mind when being bullied. Parents who think bullying is just a coming-of-age behavior are very wrong. I did write differently than I usually would because I wanted a teen audience. The book is easy to read and very fast paced, with a lot of tension. Normally, I love to write long descriptive paragraphs but I understand that teens have a shorter attention span.
JB: I was in junior high (what they called middle school in the Old Days) and high school back in the '60s. I remember teasing, which was very, very painful. But I don't recall bullying being as severe or as widespread as it is now, driving kids to kill themselves to escape the pain. Was I just lucky or clueless or have things really deteriorated since then?
NM: I entered high school in the late '90s and experienced something similar to what you're talking about. Bullying has gotten a lot worse since then because of the rise of the Internet. Bullying is no longer limited to school hours because of the development of cyberbullying. Kids come home and cannot escape the attacks. Not only are kids constantly connected online and experiencing the hateful comments, but bullies hiding behind a screen have the courage to say things even they may never say in person. Not to mention, others can jump in on a conversation easily, even anonymously. I watched a program by Anderson Cooper on CNN the other night called Being Thirteen. In this program, the thirteen years olds being studied ALL said they care more about what strangers are saying about them online than they do what their friends are saying about them in person. I found this so bizarre but it really shows you how influenced they are by social media and their "online reputations."
JB: You've given me a lot of insight into the added dimensions of being a kid these days. It's not like growing up was easy once, but there are so many more factors involved that make kids today even more isolated and vulnerable. If even peers' opinions matter less now, which comes as a big surprise to me, then kids have done away with a major traditional support system that could have helped them survive to adulthood. What's a bullied kid to do? What resources are out there?
NM: The biggest support system available to children is still their family unit. The reason kids fall into isolation and depression from bullying is because they don't want to tell their parents what's happening. They feel embarrassed and isolated and even ashamed. However, studies show that when parents intervene, the situation can improve. If you're a bullied teen, tell your parents, or a teacher, counselor, or other adult who can help. Kids typically won't get help for themselves because they don't know how, or they might think they deserve what is happening. Of course, there are many websites and hotlines to call if you are being bullied, but realistically, I don't think teens are going to do this on their own. On the same program I just mentioned, there was a psychiatrist who advised parents to sign up for all the social media accounts and 'friend' their children so they can monitor what is happening online. Know how to use the programs. Astonishingly, 95% of the parents in the study said they had no idea when their kids were being bullied online. This situation is not going to improve for bullied victims; it is the bullies who need their behavior to be changed.
JB: There's so much to discuss. As a parent (albeit of adult children), I am vastly uneducated and unprepared for this modern cyberworld. Am I wrong in thinking that part of the attraction of going online is to hang out with other kids, sort of like going to the mall, only with a very malignant potential to it? In that case, it doesn't seem likely that kids would want their parents to 'friend' them for the obvious reasons. So, how closely can a parent really supervise one or more children? It sounds like a full-time job.
NM: You're right, kids absolutely do not want their parents to 'friend' them online. In fact, that's probably one of their worst nightmares. However, they are still minors and unfortunately, this has become something that parents need to do nowadays. Parents should not 'like' or comment on their children's photos or messages, but their children should be under the impression that their parents are watching at all times. Studies also show that bullying develops when children feel too independent or when they are not getting enough attention at home. Kids do think of going online as hanging out and finding out what their friends are doing. But, just like going to the mall or the movies with friends, you are never allowed to stay out all night long. I don't think kids should have access to social media 24/7. I know it's hard to take away their phones or computers, so maybe a compromise is the answer. They can go online but have to allow their parents to see what they are doing. Allowing a child to set his/her profile to Private, which means only friends can see, should never be allowed. There is no hope for a parent to control anything when they have no idea what is going on.
JB: And all this when parents are working more and more hours and have less time to devote to the home front. The pressure! Clearly, you've given this a lot of thought.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Is that helpful in any way? And can you and your book take advantage of that fact to push awareness?
NM: It's helpful because it raises awareness to the problems that plague our country. One way social media works in our favor is that it allows content to go viral. During the summer, everyone was doing the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for ALS. I don't think many people knew what that disease was, and certainly didn't donate to a cause they had no clue about. That challenge ended up raising millions of dollars to help research and come up with a cure for the deadly disease. The same can be true for bullying. If a big deal is made, people will start researching the statistics, and change will start happening. There is currently no federal anti-bullying law. Why? Why should people be allowed to torture others physically and mentally? It should be against the law.
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