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Videos of high school life in decades past stir nostalgia and debate

“High school in 2002 looked so chill,” said a caption on a post of a video that has accrued more than 66 million views on Twitter.
Photo Illustration: A vintage prom photo with a VHS camcorder effect
Justine Goode / NBC News / Getty Images

A grainy video that recently circulated on social media captured a mundane portrait of school life at the turn of the new millennium.

Students smile and wave toward the camera as they pass through a hallway of blue metal lockers and click away at clunky, outdated desktop computers.

“High school in 2002 looked so chill,” said a caption on a post of the video that has accrued more than 66 million views on Twitter.

It's the kind of video that has become something of a viral phenomenon in recent years, offering a combination of nostalgia and social commentary on how times have changed. The videos are usually a montage of happy moments or interviews with students about where they hope to be in the future.

Various such videos have surfaced on the internet including Reddit threads and Twitter. On YouTube, a quick search turns up any number of videos, some of which have millions of views. Entire accounts on TikTok are dedicated to posting the archival footage.

The videos often inspire a range of comments about the way things were, which in turn has generated debate about just what exactly it is that people are nostalgic about.

This most recent video is no exception after one user retweeted the post and said, “It really feels like Millenials were the last people who got a largely apolitical high school experience."

That drew a variety of responses, including disagreement over the idyllic portrayal of the past.

“ah yes. The blissful apolitical experience of 9/11 and the aftermath,” one user wrote in response.

“'High school in 2002 looked so chill' if you were white and straight,'” another replied.

A near-constant refrain on such videos centers on technology — most notably the lack of it.

“Technology and social media ruined it :( ,” one user wrote on another TikTok video labeled "High school in 2001.”

“When people interacted with each other,” another commented on the same video.

Clay Routledge, a psychologist who has studied nostalgia, said that people are sentimental toward the past because retrospection provides a degree of comfort.

“The past has already unfolded. So there’s something stabilizing about looking backwards,” he added.

Amid recent studies that linked social media use to mental health disorders and revealed teenage girls are facing unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety, nostalgia may be a form of “creative problem solving,” Routledge said.

Of course, the past is not limited to the era before social media — meaning that internet nostalgia also exists. Gen Zers speak fondly of memes and jokes that circulated on the video-sharing app Vine, while millennials muse on what their old profiles on Myspace used to look like.

Social media companies have also recognized the power of a walk down memory lane and court consumers with features that resurface old content (posts, photographs, and videos).

When the world feels uncertain, people search for elements of the past to extract guidance and confidence for the future, Routledge said.

Whether high school in 2002 was “chill” remains a contentious point online. Twitter users found common ground elsewhere; many acknowledged the distinct experience of maturing in an online world versus a time predating common social media use.

“Being in high school is (at least partially) tough no matter where or when you grew up but in hindsight, I’m grateful that I graduated before Facebook or MySpace were a thing,” one user said.

“But I also see how having social media and blogging sites could have made me and lots of other kids feel less alone (esp in our identities), and it’s so interesting to hear how younger generations benefitted from those connections!” the user continued.

Another user appeared unfazed by the online discourse, instead tweeting about its familiarity: “People moaned then too about the good old days.”