"When I was your age … "
How many excruciatingly boring stories start this way? Tales of hardship and woe told by grandparents, distant relatives and other older folks who relish in reminiscing about their youth.
But nowadays, on street corners, in coffee shops and in local watering holes across the country, a keen ear might hear this phrase escaping the lips of a new subset: twentysomethings nostalgic for their own childhoods in the not-so-long-ago '90s.
"When I was your age, Pluto was a planet"; "When I was your age, stamps cost 27 cents"; or "When I was your age, Nickelodeon was actually worth watching."
Need proof of this nostalgic mania? Look no further than Facebook, the online social networking Web site. College kids have created dozens of groups celebrating their favorite things from yesteryear. With names like "If You Remember This, You Grew Up in the '90s," and "100 Reasons You Know You Grew up in the '90s," the groups commemorate nearly every aspect of life in the last decade: songs, toys, politics, food and, of course, television shows.
What's going on here? It seems a bit too soon to start reminiscing about your childhood when you only achieved a state of legal majority within the last five years, doesn't it?
But maybe this craze isn't as crazy as it first seems.
"There's a greater awareness of pop culture in today's young adults," says Jean Twenge, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — And More Miserable Than Ever Before.
And considering what's been going on since the turn of the century, it's no wonder young people feel desperate to return to the past. "In the '90s, our biggest problem was O.J. [Simpson] … and all we had to worry about was the president getting it on with an intern," declares Twenge. "Now, people are dying in Iraq."
With life so grim, why not pine away for a bygone era? At the very least, it may be a way to make some friends.
"If you're having a hard time connecting with someone [who is] the same age, all you have to do is bring up 'Saved by the Bell,' " says Molly Frandson, 21, citing a high school sitcom from the '90s.
A college senior, Frandson is one of more than 750,000 members in one Facebook nostalgia group.
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Lots of twentysomethings seem to bond over old sitcoms, even going so far as to lament the fact that television just isn't what it used to be.
"Kids today … don't have shows like 'Full House' or 'Family Matters,' " says Mike Settele, 18, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and founder of "100 Reasons You Know You Grew Up in the '90s."
In fact, he adds, he's heard people complain that even Nickelodeon isn't as good as it once was.
That fact drove Adriana DeGirolami, 21, a college senior, to start the Facebook group "I Miss Old School Nickelodeon." Her favorite childhood programs — especially "Clarissa Explains It All" and the animated "Rugrats" — "had serious values, especially compared to shows that are on now," she insists.
That might sound a bit dramatic, but apparently, there's a reason TV viewers get attached to their childhood favorites. "People come to like [television] characters and to see them as friends," explains Melanie Green, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As strong as the emotional connections to characters may be, shows also help viewers bond with actual, real, breathing people — you know, the three-dimensional ones who live outside of a TV set.
"Part of the appeal of some programs is the ability to talk to others about them," says Green. "People want to be able to fit in, and that might involve sharing laughs about the latest 'Simpsons' episode or comedy catch-phrase."
And if people can bond over something like a show they saw on TV last night, think about how much stronger the link is when the show played a large part in their lives? For many college students, that's the whole point.
Still, once the bonding is done, even '90s nostalgia buffs can find the whole thing a little eerie.
"Everybody is familiar with the jokes about older people saying how much better their generation was," says Settele. "It's strange that now those thoughts don't seem as ridiculous as they used to. It chills me to say this, but we are just like our parents and our grandparents."