The Biggest Difference Between Being a Teen in the 80s and Now

Of all the differences between my daughter and me, the fact that she doesn’t “people watch” is one of the most difficult to understand.

I was a teenager in the 80s, when interacting was done live, not on Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok. There was no screen separating strangers.

“Look up!” I constantly tell my 12-year-old daughter, who always seems to be looking at her phone.

teens with phones
I tell my daughter to “look up” from her phone, all the time. (twenty20 @shannonfieldsphoto)

I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan before it was trendy. The street I lived on had nothing for kids to do, my friends and I often complained; yet it was our entire world.

When I Was a Teen in the 80s

On Saturday nights we would walk back and forth along Columbus Avenue. Sometimes stopping to sit on a bench behind the Museum of Natural History, in a pizza parlor or at Burger King. Mainly, we’d scrutinize other teens. Some were heavier than us, others more beautiful but none were air brushed. Their skin tones and lips were real.

We hung out for hours in the sweltering heat of summer or winter’s frigid cold, making up stories about the lives of strangers who paraded past [he’s a recently-divorced Vietnam veteran and TV producer] and discussing whether couples were on a first date or together for years.

We’d dare each other to ask a cute boy for the time.

Alone in her room my twelve-year-old daughter scrolls through thousands of images and videos on Instagram; messaging as fluidly as she breathes.

Many of her 1,000 plus “followers” are just acquaintances from schools, after-school programs or camps. A handful are good friends. None of them are really there.

“You want to go out?” I ask.

“I’m busy,” she usually replies. Busy with everything and nothing at all.

She’s busy commenting on atrocities in Syria, a friend’s birthday, a meme that reads “substitute teacher let’s switch names.”
“Look up,” I say, “I’m really here.”

But she’s busy writing ILYSM, LMFAO, BFF and IRL [in real life.]

In real life, other than a phone call with someone I knew, I had to go out to see anyone. If a friend of a friend’s cousin was having a party, some kids my age were roller skating on the block or someone suggested we browse records at Tower Music, I would be there.

My few close friends and I steeled our nerves to be wherever other people were so we could observe them: feathered hair, Benetton sweatshirts, Adidas and acne. Entirely familiar, but nothing like us at all, we thought.

On weekends Lorraine, Daisy, Tracy, and I were always together.

On weekends when my daughter “goes live” followers watch from their homes. They swap selfies, FaceTime and double tap each other’s photos to show love.

They’re always together and hardly together at all.

Because their necks are craned over phones at parties and sleepovers and when they “hang out.”

On a recent summer Sunday we drove home through Times Square.

“Look up! Look up!” I said, interrupting my daughter’s texting, “we’re driving through Times Square.”

“There’s nothing here, just people and buildings,” she said.

“Just people and buildings,” I agreed, “and the entire world.”

Your Might Also Want to Read:

High School in the 80s was Different and We Were Just Fine

My 80s Summers: 10 Things I’m Sharing With My Teens

5 Things This Teen Wishes Parents Knew About Social Media

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