On Being 13, in 1990 or 2016

I’ve been on vacation for the last week, and since I’ve been down in Palm Springs for the last three days, I’ve caught up on the Washington Post ($1 on my Kindle for 6 months, not a bad deal). The post published a piece this morning, The Screen Age, on what it’s like to be 13 years old in 2016. Essentially, what it’s like to be part of Generation Z.

Katherine, the 13-year-old eighth grader profiled in the Post article, spends much of her day — 6 hours, according to the latest stats — on her iPhone, which she received in the fifth grade. She goes back and forth from Fitbit to Instagram to Snapchat. It goes without saying that the article barely references Facebook, and that’s more in talking about where her 56-year-old dad has trouble uploading photos.

I think part of the reason that she’s spending much of the day on her phone is because, well, that’s what 13-year-olds do, but there’s other reasons that might lurk beneath the surface, if you read the story. It’s a good one.

I consider myself somewhere between Generation X and Generation Y, although my wife would disagree (“You’re Generation X,” she says.)

She was born in 1981, clearly a millennial. Most demographers would say that I’m part of the last 10% of Generation X, because my parents were part of the post WWII Baby Boom. But perhaps I feel more like Generation Y, perhaps because I grew up using a computer since the age of 5 — my Commodore 64 — and was on the Internet at 13 (AOL, of course). This makes me a digital native, right? I remember the first time I sat down in front of AOL, in April 1991, and how I thought the world had absolutely, permanently changed.

I’m sure someone wrote an article about what it was like to be a 13-year-old in the early ’90s. Just a few months ago a video of unedited footage from a 1995 midwest high school was floating around on Facebook, and it was pretty hilarious, though I’m guessing that’s what teens in 1995 would have thought of unedited footage of high school students from 1974.

Here’s a rough timeline of what I remember from the time between, say, when I turned 13 and 15, in terms of what it meant to be that age at that time, and what my digital world was like, and what made me walk away from it and do something else with my life.

August 1990: Turned 13, learned how to use Gopher and Telnet (early internet search tools) to search for Van Halen sheet music with my friend Koby. Was probably buying two cassettes per week (AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Guns & Roses, etc.) Began buying CDs.

Late 1990: Age 13 — Was running a music ‘zine, The Poqo, that lasted about 4 issues — laid it out using a version of Adobe Pagemaker that was borrowed fro a friend’s mom. Called Metallica fan club magazine editor and heavy metal journalist Steffan Chirazi, and he introduced me to Faith No More and Primus for phone interviews. (Mind, this was 16 years before you could tweet anyone.)

April 1991: Used AOL and the Internet for the first time — mind blown.

May 1991: First real kiss, started dating.

Fall 1991: Age 14 — Got my first email address, formed my first real band, Six Feet Under. Began to do less on the internet, because most 14-year-old boys would rather play punk rock and heavy metal than surf the internet.

October 1992: Age 15 — Smoked pot for the first time, didn’t get high. Wasn’t that impressed.

Spring 1993: At this point most of my friends had cars or access to one. My band changed our name to Smileyface, and recorded our first real cassette EP, The Reo Deo, at the long-gone House Of Faith studios. By that point, I was more interested in playing shows with Raggedy Anne (later The Donnas) at parties we threw in our (retrospectively dangerous) East Palo Alto rehearsal space or Battle of the Bands than messing around on the Internet. Probably started drinking beer around this time, if and when my friends and I were able to get our hands on it, which wasn’t that often. Started listening to hardcore punk. I recall sharing our rehearsal space with a really good band, 976.

The timeline goes on from there, but it doesn’t make much sense to compare my 16-year-old misadventures to that of a 13-year-old’s.

The big difference I see between the life of a teenager in the early ’90s and today, is that back then, the digital stuff was around, but it was hardly a measure of one’s reputation, coolness, or social in-group status. Today, it appears to be almost a game that literally can be “gamed” — back then, perceiving how you wanted your peers to see you was far more opaque, but also the rules weren’t changing all the time.

I don’t know whether it’s better or worse to be 13 today or twenty-six years ago, but, as far as I can tell neither one is any more dangerous than the other, just different. I think kids are just as likely to make stupid decisions today (putting their nude photos on the Internet, getting wasted) as they would have been twenty-six years ago.

If you have to look at it from a societal perspective, violent crime is way lower than it was in the early ’90s, and I think it’s fair to say that teens have better access to free education (i.e. online universities, Khan Academy, etc.), so today might actually be a better and safer time to be 13.

Possibly because I can’t think of a single good (or dangerous) hardcore punk band that’s come along since 1993.