Author’s note: Below is an excerpt/sneak peek from my debut book, ReThink the Internet: How To Make The Digital World a Lot Less Sucky! It’s a first-of-its-kind, “by-youth, for-youth” guide to help a 3rd-7th grade audience (and their parents, caregivers, and educators) navigate the digital world with confidence. Through a series of funny, fictional stories, I impart 7 important lessons — ranging from how to avoid too much screen time to how to stay calm and collected online — with the goal of equipping young people with the skills to be responsible digital citizens.
Throughout my nearly nine-year career as anti-hate activist and inventor of ReThink, a patented app that stops cyberbullying, I quickly realized that while today’s generation is tech-savvy, they’re not digitally literate. I set out to create a “survival guide” to the Internet I knew youth would love. That’s why “ReThink the Internet” is fun and relatable as well as educational and impactful. It personalizes the issues youth read about, puzzle over, and struggle to solve; it also offers youth the practical tools and skills they need to tackle these challenges in their everyday lives.
While written for a middle grade audience, the book also includes a Companion Guide for educators and parents, so that they can support young readers and initiate vital conversations about their use of technology and the Internet.
ReThink the Internet is now available from Philomel Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House). Order your copy today here: https://bit.ly/3lIIzVz.
If I wanted to, I could spend all day on my phone. (And . . . if I’m being honest, sometimes, it feels like I do! ) After all, there are so many TikTok dances to master (Renegade!), games to play, and friends to text. (And what’s a good friend if they don’t immediately respond with their opinion on my life crises?) So it’s totally justified if you’re wondering, Really, what’s wrong with spending a bunch of time on my phone? Well . . . for one, being on your phone all the time isn’t good for you. Science says that people who spend a ton of time on their phones may actually be less happy (which no one wants!), and using your phone too much can even make it more difficult for you to fall asleep (if you’re all about the #NapGame, like I am, that can be a serious problem). But even worse, too much time on your phone can mean that it starts to replace your life. Technology is great when it enhances your life—makes everything in your life, like your friendships and interests, even better. Being able to text a friend when you need to is the best—but spend too much time on your phone, and soon all you’ll do is text your friend (instead of spend time with them—which is what a friendship really needs). That’s exactly what happened to me the summer before seventh grade: My best friend and I finally got phones and started texting each other all the time. But we didn’t really make time to hang out or do all the things we used to love to do (watch movies, chat crushes, and eat way too much ice cream). When the school year started, it was like we didn’t know each other . . . and it was the worst. Take it from me: don’t let your phone take over your life—be thoughtful about the time you spend on your phone (or any device).
Calvin McBestie wiped the sticky sweat dripping off his face. Nasty. Mid-court, he paused to catch his breath. He was exhausted—physically and mentally. Pull yourself together, he thought. This is it. Above him, the court’s timer read, in big block letters, 0:15. There’s just fifteen seconds left in the game. He glanced at the scoreboard. Blueridge Fancy Pants—91; Woodlawn Troopers—90. This is the Troopers’—my—last chance. The audience buzzed with excitement; out of the corner of his eye, he could see his mom cheering from the bleachers. She was holding a sign: “Let’s GO Troopers Basketball!”
Calvin heard the ref blow his whistle; a second later, his teammate, Tyrone Friend, passed the ball to the Troopers point guard—his best friend, Paul Fonelover. Immediately, the timer started to count down. Paul rapidly advanced the ball up the court; at the free-throw line, he paused, and moved to take the shot. The audience watched, breathless. But then . . . suddenly, Paul locked eyes with Calvin. Calvin smiled. I know that look. A second later, Paul faked a shot—sending the Fancy Pants defensive player in the wrong direction—and in one motion, passed the ball to Calvin. It’s all me now. As the audience roared, Calvin pivoted back, exhaled, and sent the ball flying toward the net. In that moment, everything seemed to slow—and as the ball hurtled toward the basket, Calvin felt himself hoping, praying . . . Please let it go in.
And then— Whoosh. He made the shot! “Nothing but net!” someone in the crowd hollered. As the bleachers erupted, Calvin heard the buzzer sound. He’d done it—the Troopers won! A second later, his teammates were all over him, chanting his name. “Let’s go, dude!” Tyrone yelled, slapping his back. They all started to laugh and cheer. Four months of grueling practice made the win that much sweeter.
Calvin found himself looking for someone— There he is. Paul! They ran toward each other until they collided mid-court, and began to jump up and down. “You did the thing, dude!” he heard Paul yell. “That’s my boy!” Mid-jump, Calvin yelled back, “It was all you. You’re the master!”
“Good evening, boys,” Calvin heard someone say. They both abruptly stopped jumping. To their left stood an eager-looking middle-aged woman holding a large notepad. Behind her stood a camera crew. “My name is Avayah Sentinel, and I’m here with the Woodlawn News team. We’d love to feature you in a segment that’ll be airing tomorrow morning. Do you have a minute?”
Calvin hesitated—he’d always been one to shy away from any attention—but Paul grabbed him, planting him directly in front of the camera. “Absolutely!” Paul said, and smiled. “We’d love to, right, Calvin?” he said, slapping Calvin’s back. Great, Calvin thought as he shrugged.
“Wonderful! My first question is . . .” Ms. Sentinel consulted her notebook. “Tell me about that last shot . . . take me through those fifteen seconds; how did you two work together to execute that play? Had you practiced it before? It looked like it took exceptional teamwork.” She extended the mic to Calvin.
“Uh . . .” Calvin spluttered. He could feel himself turning red. Think, Calvin; just say something! “Uh . . .”
Suddenly, Paul grabbed the microphone. “Well, I guess it’s my turn to assist!” he joked. Calvin smiled and ducked his head. This is why Paul and I work so well—Paul always has my back . . . and has a big mouth. “It’s really simple,” Paul continued, waving his hands energetically. “Calvin’s my best friend—and that gives us a huge advantage on the court, because we’re able to read each other. We’d actually never practiced that play before,” he said, glancing at Calvin, who nodded. “But basketball is all about teamwork and coordination. And we won tonight because we have the best team!” Around them, some fans cheered. Mark my words, Calvin thought. Someday, Paul is going to be the mayor of Woodlawn.
“Cut!” Ms. Sentinel yelled. “That . . . was . . . perfect! You are incredible!” she said, looking directly at Paul.
Paul smiled. “I think you mean . . . we’re both incredible,” he said, cocking his head.
Burn! Calvin thought.
Ms. Sentinel gasped. “Oh . . . yes, yes! Of course! That’s what I meant.”
Paul smiled sweetly at her reaction. “Well, then . . . c’mon, Calvin!” As they ran back to the lockers, they both started to laugh. Calvin and Paul: 1. Avayah Sentinel: 0.
For as long as Calvin could remember, he’d done pretty much everything with his best friend—with Paul. They’d met in the first grade, when they’d bonded over how much they hated their reading teacher, Mrs. Stickler. Naturally, they booby-trapped her classroom on the last day of the school year—and one school suspension later, as Paul put it, “a beautiful friendship was born.”
Most people at school jokingly called them “Palvin” because it was so rare to see one without the other. They were neighbors, took the same seventh-grade classes, were both on Woodlawn Middle School’s varsity basketball team, and played in the marching band (both on trumpet). And on the weekends, you could usually find them at VideoWorld, the local video game store, where they’d compete for hours in tournaments (their team name was Palvin, of course!).
This basketball win was just the latest in a string of Palvin accomplishments! Which is why Calvin was in such a great mood when his mom dropped him off at Woodlawn Middle School the Monday after the big game. It was the day of the celebratory pep rally, when the whole school would gather for the hoisting of the division trophy. Coincidentally, it was also Paul’s birthday—so, as he’d put it, “double the celebration!” Calvin immediately headed for the C-wing, where Paul, Tyrone, and their other teammates usually hung out before the first bell. When he arrived, he saw Tyrone and their other friend, Ramón, but no Paul. Hmph. He’d usually be here, especially on his birthday. “Hey, have you seen Paul?” he asked Tyrone. Tyrone shook his head. “Nah, man. But, dude . . . we have got to talk about that play y’all pulled off on Friday!”
In first-period biology, Calvin noticed that Paul was absent. Weird . . . It was only at the end of the period that Paul finally sauntered in, to applause and cheers from the class. “Let’s go, Troopers!” Ramón yelled.
Ms. Hardheart, their teacher, crossed her arms, displeased. “Congratulations on your win, Mr. Fonelover. Unfortunately, that doesn’t excuse you from class.”
Paul smiled—as always—sweetly. “I have a pass, Ms. Hardheart,” he said, extending it to her. She grabbed it from him and narrowed her eyes.
“Take a seat,” she said sharply.
“Dude! Happy birthday!” Calvin exclaimed as Paul settled in next to him. “Also . . . I didn’t think Ms. Hardheart could hate you more.” They both laughed. “Why are you late? What were you doing?”
Paul grinned. “As a birthday gift, my parents let me play hooky . . . to have breakfast at the Pancake House,” he said while Calvin groaned in jealousy. The Pancake House had the best pancakes. Just thinking about the Triple Chocolate Delight made Calvin woozy.
“Oh man!” Calvin said. “You’re so lucky.” His mom had yelled at him for being late to breakfast (of course).
Paul glanced surreptitiously at Ms. Hardheart. “And it only gets better, dude! They also got me . . .” He reached into his backpack and slyly pulled something out. Calvin squinted. Wait, what is that? “A phone! Finally, man!” Paul said, waving it.
Internally, Calvin was stunned—and felt a sharp pang of jealousy. A cell phone? Paul got a cell phone? Calvin had been begging his mom to get him a phone for years—but she had decreed that he “wasn’t ready yet.” And this was when almost everyone else in their grade already had a phone. Up to that point, it hadn’t been the worst thing, especially because Paul didn’t have one . . . But now he did! How is that fair? Calvin knew he should’ve been happy for his friend, but he couldn’t help it. This majorly sucked.
To make matters worse, Paul barely noticed—he was . . . too busy looking at his new phone! “Dude, look at this thing—it’s so sick! I can text, like, anyone I want, like Ramón and Tyrone. And I’ve already downloaded so many games, including Fortress Dynamite!”
Calvin looked up suddenly. Oh no . . . please don’t tell me. Fortress Dynamite was their favorite VideoWorld video game. “You can . . . play Fortress Dynamite on your phone?” he said, his voice uncertain.
“Yeah, man!” Paul nodded enthusiastically. “They match you with random players. And honestly”—he lowered his voice—“it totally beats VideoWorld. It’s the best.” His voice trailed off as he checked a text. Calvin sighed deeply, worry bubbling inside of him. Why did it feel like all of a sudden everything was changing? Because it is, a voice inside his head said. Paul is going to be playing Fortress Dynamite without you. Soon enough, he’ll be hanging out with Ramón and Tyrone—not you.
Shut up! Calvin thought.
“Dude? Hello?” Calvin blinked. Paul was staring at him. “Earth to Calvin,” he said, moving a hand in front of his face. “Come in, Calvin.” Calvin smiled faintly. “What’s wrong, bro?” Paul asked, his voice curious.
“Nothing!” Calvin said, shrugging. “Why would something be wrong?”
Paul clucked his tongue. “Ah—is this because your mom won’t get you one? A phone, I mean?” Calvin looked away. “Dude, it’s just a phone. It’s not a big deal. Besides, you can use this!” Paul said emphatically. Huh? Calvin was bewildered. What on earth is he talking about? Paul explained: “Tell your mom that I got a phone, and then she’ll get you one too. This is your chance!”
Wait a second. Calvin hadn’t thought about it that way . . . Now things didn’t seem so bad. If this ended up working out for him, it could be a win all around. Yeah . . . I’ll tell her that Paul got one, and then she’ll realize that I need one too. Maybe Mrs. Fonelover can help convince her! Suddenly, Calvin was in a great mood again. For the rest of the day, he imagined his mom finally admitting he deserved a phone. He’d play Fortress Dynamite with Calvin every day during biology! It’s going to be awesome. Calvin and Paul: 1. The Phone: 0.