Stranger Things, the surprise summer Netflix hit written and directed by the Duffer brothers, explores the different world (and I’m not talking about the world of monsters) and culture of the ’80s. Ronald Reagan asked the question in the 1980 debates, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The question that I asked myself after watching Stranger Things was, “Are we better off than a generation ago?”
Having grown up in a midwestern exurb myself, the setting of the series, I found the fictional Hawkins, Indiana, scarily authentic. Like Bon Temps, Louisiana, from the HBO series True Blood, the town and its surroundings become one of the characters. There are forests where kids hide and build forts. There are quarries where kids hang out and get in trouble. There are homes with open windows and it is beautiful and menacing at the same time.
The story is built around four tween boys and what happens when one of them goes missing (think Stephen King’s Stand By Me and the “dead kid”). The writers let the boys talk like boys that age talk. For that matter, the dialogue between the teens and between the adults rings true, too. Often times the words sound outrageously un-PC, but they are words that were spoken then and probably are spoken now only in hushed tones and behind closed doors.
That brings me to the cultural changes. Two of them stand out. The first my daughter noticed immediately and was pretty horrified about, “They’re so mean!” The second stood out to both of us: the children had freedom kids these days can’t imagine. The two things might be related.
A generation ago, kids met down the block to fight at appointed times. Kids would laugh and be cruel. Kids would beat each other up, pull knives on each other (happened to me), chase each other with knives (some friends I know), put another kid in a headlock, punch in the gut, break glasses, prank call, egg houses, paper trees, ding dong and ditch, pull hair, call names, push in mud, pants, and menace each other. Most of the time, parents and teachers never knew. The kids had to figure it out.
That sounds horrible, right?
Out of curiosity, I went to check the suicide rate of kids from the ’80s to the ’90s compared to now. As of 2010, the suicide rate among early teens is worse now and among kids ages 15-19 there was one more suicide per 100,000 in the ’80s compared to now. Statistically insignificant change, in other words.
|All ages, age adjusted||13.2||13.2||13.2||13.2||12.5||11.8||10.4||10.7||10.9||10.8||11.0||11.0||12.1|
|65 years and over||30.0||24.5||20.8||17.6||20.5||17.9||15.2||15.3||15.6||14.6||–||–||14.9|
|85 years and over||28.8||26.0||19.0||19.2||22.2||21.3||19.6||17.5||18.0||16.9||16.4||16.9||17.6|
|Male, all ages||21.2||20.0||19.8||19.9||21.5||20.3||17.7||18.2||18.4||18.0||18.0||17.7||19.8|
|Female, all ages||5.6||5.6||7.4||5.7||4.8||4.3||4.0||4.0||4.2||4.2||4.2||4.5||5.0|
Back in the ’80s there wasn’t cyber-bullying, of course, but as Stranger Things demonstrated, cruelty could come in the form of spray paint on a wall in public and the shame could be just as acute if not as enduring. Technology can make a schoolyard taunt into an intimate threat — menacing words shared and spread and made permanent for all time.
Technology means that a child is never alone. Someone is always around. That can be a good and loving someone or a mean someone. With incessant connectedness, there is a loss of freedom.
In the Stranger Things world, kids rode their bikes home in the dark. They ditched school with relative impunity. The doors weren’t locked on the inside or the outside of the schools. They talked over walkie-talkies and hung out for hours on end doing whatever they wanted. When a kid didn’t come home, the parents couldn’t immediately text (something I am fond of doing). The parents had to wait, but they rarely worried. They knew where the kid probably was and that was enough.
Kids had their own subculture. Parents paid little attention. They were doing their own things, paying attention to their own problems.
But there was more: The kids in this show don’t have crippling and life-strangling amounts of homework. They have homework, yes, but they have free time to play and explore. In the kids’ case it might be the mysteries of the backyard or playing D&D. In the teens’ case, it might be exploring each other. In all cases, the kids were learning. They were facing difficulties socially and physically and finding ways to overcome them themselves.
With the freedom, kids seemed to breath more even as they experienced more physical and parental isolation. There just seemed to be more air — space to move, think, do. Today, life seems cluttered with activities and pressure to succeed. Were teens in the ’80s worrying so much? Well, they were worrying about other things — like how to avoid getting smashed in the face in bombardament by the guy who got a mustache in 6th grade. He was scary. They worried about getting a car.
Children today are more protected — from pain, but also from the delights of figuring it out on their own. Parents and children seem closer in a way that just wasn’t the case a generation ago. Maybe that support is necessary because the academic pressure is so much greater. Maybe they need more affirmative interaction because through technology they see a scarier world (the data shows that we live in a safer world but the data competes with ubiquitous images of war, murder, disease, etc.)
Stranger Things makes one feel like something important has been lost. Children have scant wiggle room to fail. They also have less room to explore. The world seems safer and less mean now, but suffocating and blandly trivial as a result. Many freedoms have been sacrificed, many opportunities lost in an hyper-aware and mortally diligent world.
Have the trade-offs we’ve made been worth it? Will our children thank us for the cocoons we’ve created? Watch the show and contemplate when things went upside down.