Technology has always altered the ways in which we communicate with one another and entertain ourselves, but those changes are accelerating and dramatically affecting the ways that we socialize. Much has been said about how social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are transforming the ways in which we communicate, and it's clear that's true. But there are other effects that our increasing reliance on the Internet as a socialization tool is having on our culture. These trends are obvious everywhere, but especially when it comes to social customs among young people.
4. Malls may disappear, and the Internet is partially to blame.
I never thought of myself as a mall rat when I was a teenager back in the '80s, but I guess my friends and I spent a lot of time hanging out in Houston malls (such as Sharpstown and Memorial City) way back then. The mall was a destination, a place to go when we wanted to get out of our houses, girl watch, and play some arcade games. Sure, we'd occasionally shop at places like the original Dream Merchant in Sharpstown Mall. But for the most part, we went to malls as a way to socialize, and a way to interact with other teenagers.
Malls were sort of their own world. A place where adult authority was still present, but somehow seemed diminished. I think the only time I ever felt the stern hand of the adult world in an '80s shopping mall was when my group of pals ran into an older friend of my mother, and she gave me grief for wearing an obscene Circle Jerks shirt. I don't think we were alone. Malls were an important part of teenage life for decades.
But malls are in trouble these days. There are estimates that of the roughly 1,100 active malls around currently, about half will close over the next 20 years. Teenagers just don't seem to view the mall as the center of their universes anymore.
There are a lot of reasons for this phenomena, ranging from consumers buying online more and more to the death of certain types of retailers once common to shopping malls. Which bring us to...
3. Record stores are dying. One of the sad casualties of technology is the protracted demise of record stores. Once common in malls and as standalone businesses, fewer and fewer or them are left standing, since consumers have fully embraced downloading music. I won't bash downloading as somehow a lesser form of music shopping. I buy music online often enough these days, but it isn't the same experience as walking into a brick and mortar shop where you know the owner, who might helpfully refer you to a new band that he thinks you'll like. Record stores, especially the quirky independent ones, are more than just stores, and that's what's missing when I download a song as opposed to buying a record or CD from an actual shop. They are gathering places for people searching for interesting music, in some cases as much a social club as anything else.
Going to a store like the Record Exchange or Vinyl Edge was as much a journey of social discovery as it was a shopping trip. I remember meeting people at those places that had similar tastes as mine, and some of those folks are still friends of mine. Try meeting a friend on iTunes.
2. Arcades are mostly a thing of the past. Most young people today don't really want to hang out in video game arcades anymore. Their heyday is generally agreed to have been from roughly 1978 (release of Space Invaders) to 1984 or so. Teenagers couldn't get enough of the new video games like Pac-Man and Defender, and arcades dedicated to games like those popped up everywhere.
Of course, arcades weren't really anything new at the time. There were gaming amusements going back to at least 1931, when the first coin-operated pinball machines were released. I remember weird analog electronic shooting gallery games at pizza parlors when I was a little kid in the '70s. My point is that arcade style games were popular with kids for generations, and were still popular after the early '80s golden age.
Yes, there are still arcade-style video games being made, but they generally end up in bars or bowling alleys. The days of an actual stand-alone arcade are basically over. There are retro arcades like downtown Houston's Joystix, which are awesome for old codgers like me, but those are few and far between, and they don't cater to a teenage crowd.
So what happened? Arcades were such a staple of teen life, how did they disappear? Technology just improved, and made computer and console gaming better than anything you could stuff a quarter into. For a long time, that wasn't the case. All nostalgia aside, early home gaming systems like the Atari 2600 kind of sucked compared to the arcade machines of the time, at least when playing a home version of one of those superior arcade games.
But home video game consoles got better and better over the years, and eventually a person didn't have to go to some dark arcade somewhere and drop a bunch of quarters into a machine to get his fix. Over the last two decades or so, home systems have evolved to the point that games are now like interactive movies, and are totally immersive adventures that take days or weeks to finish. So people are playing most games at their homes, and no longer have to run down to play Stargate at Westwood Mall. It can be social, since many games are online and cooperative now, but it's a different kind of socialization, and not face to face. Times have changed.
1. Fewer young people are driving. One trend that's surprising to me is that a lot of young people are not buying cars, driving much, or even bothering to get a drivers license at all. Why is this surprising? When I was young, almost every kid I knew was just waiting until they turned 15 and could get their learner's permit. Being able to drive was a major key to teenage freedom, and a huge rite of passage for me and most of my pals.
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The number of teenagers driving climbed steadily until peaking in 1983, when 72 percent of them got driver's licenses. Today, only a little over 50 percent do, and the number is projected to fall over the next couple of decades. There are lots of reasons that this is thought to be happening, including economic factors such as rising fuel costs, but it's also clear that owning a car does not have as much social significance to many younger people that it held in past generations.
They are increasingly moving to urban areas where walking or biking is a viable way to get around, and mass transit is an option as well. Owning their own vehicle may seem unnecessary or even an expensive hassle. Online socialization also plays into this trend. As more and more of our interactions with others take place online, teenagers no longer have to drive to places like the mall to hang out with their peers. Instead they can just hop on Facebook and enjoy as much social drama as they can handle, from the comfort of their own room.
It seems clear that the ways people socialize and play are changing dramatically, and will continue to do so. These changes are not limited to young people of course. Almost everyone seems to be on social networking sites or spending time interacting with others online, but it is most obvious to me noting that so many of the things I grew up with are either disappearing entirely, or becoming much less important to today's youth.
Now please excuse me while I hop into my Trans Am and head on down to the arcade.