Communication is the best way to defeat ignorance

PUBLISHED: 13:54 16 April 2009 | UPDATED: 16:06 07 September 2010

WHEN agony aunt Hilary Freeman wrote her debut teen novel, she set up a page and a blog on website MySpace for her fictional character Danny. Intrigued that people visited it believing the musician was a real person in a real band called the Wonderfulls,

WHEN agony aunt Hilary Freeman wrote her debut teen novel, she set up a page and a blog on website MySpace for her fictional character Danny.

Intrigued that people visited it believing the musician was a real person in a real band called the Wonderfulls, it gave her an idea for her next book.

Don't Ask (Piccadilly Press £6.99) tells how teenager Lily befriends her new boyfriend's ex online to winkle out information on his past.

"There I was, a 37-year-old woman posing online as a 21-year-old man who didn't exist, and everyone just took me at face value. I started thinking about how that could be used to find out so many things about your partner," says the former South Hampstead High School pupil who lives in Camden Town.

"These social networking sites put you in touch with people you haven't seen for 20 years. It's easy to look up ex-boyfriends but in turn it raises issues about privacy. It changes how people have relationships and live their social lives and the information they can get about people."

Lily changes her identity online, but what at first seems easy, ends up getting her into deep water and she ultimately learns lessons about friendship and betrayal.

Freeman, who enjoys playfully mixing truth and fiction, has now set up the fictional Topfriendz.com as a real social networking site where readers can talk to each other or to the author about her books.

Her other career is as a freelance journalist and agony aunt for Sky.com and charity website The Site, which gives information and guidance to young people.

She previously handled the problem page at teen magazine Cosmogirl.

"For a teenager, an agony aunt plays an important role because they can be the only person they tell about a problem. Although as an adult you think about many of the problems "don't worry, that will pass, everyone's been through that," a teenager doesn't have that perspective. For them it's a huge deal. Their feelings are so intense at that age and they often can't tell their friends or parents because they are so embarrassed."

With the decline of teen magazines, young people are increasingly turning to the internet for advice, says Freeman, emailing or texting instead of writing old fashioned letters.

"There is a body that oversees agony aunts on magazines but on the net, anyone and everyone can give advice and how do you know the right sources? That's why places like The Site are good. There is a level of responsibility. One day a week I give live relationship advice, answered individually and the person who writes in gets a code to type in and get their answer."

Freeman has noticed a change in the problems teenagers write in about. There are the usual issues around friendship and relationship break-up and her answers are usually about communication.

"It's the answer to most things - it's not rocket science: 'talk to him, talk to her'."

But she also sees increasing queries surrounding anorexia and self-harm.

"They were hardly around in my day but I think there is so much more pressure on teenagers today. The pressure to be thin is just one of them and I think a general quest for perfection can work with external factors to trigger an eating disorder. As a teenager you don't get control over very much. Food is the one thing you can control."

She adds: "The other thing that concerns me is the ignorance about sex. It's just as bad as it ever was. They don't know the mechanics of it, how they can get pregnant, they think anal sex or threesomes are what everyone's doing. They don't know it's normal for a woman to have pubic hair."

Unfortunately the prurience of commercial teen fiction militates against addressing such ignorance in her novels. Freeman's characters can kiss and no more.

But nevertheless she loves writing for the age group. "They either love something or hate it but unlike adults don't make any judgements before they pick up a book."

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