What the 90s Were Like as a Teenager

The 90s were amazing, but perhaps most amazing if you were a teenager. I was born in 1983, and from the age of seven to seventeen, I experienced the 90s, which was a different time to say the least. I’m not sure if this post is inspired by getting older or living in the US political Hell scape, either way, here is what the 90s were like as a teenager.

There are many posts online that remember the 90s. This is simply what I remember. What it was like as a teenager watching the internet become a thing. What it was like to grow up in the public school system in the states, and some thoughts on what it is like being a thirty-something now looking back on those times.

I was 14 when Princess Dianna died, and the event is one that I remember today, as the entire world seemed to stop. The 90s had it’s moments of seriousness and sadness, moments when the entire world took pause, to remember and reflect. For the most part, the 90s were a lot of fun, and very future oriented, which is mainly what I remember. 


The dot-com thing was great (for a while)


The super bowl has long been a showcase for high budget commercials, but the 90s were a spectacle that had to be seen to be believed. Before the dot-com bubble burst, anything was possible and the internet was the place were it was happening. As a kid who grew up on science fiction, watching the dot-com movement was inspiring and exciting. 

Companies like Yahoo were killing it, and although websites were just some images and HTML downloaded over a phone connection, it was exciting, why? Well it was new, it felt like science fiction becoming a reality. In the 80’s we just had televisions with a physical knob worth of channels, perhaps a Nintendo if you were lucky, and then suddenly, the world was connected.

Companies like pets.com landed 82.5 million in IPO and then went “all-in” on super bowl ads where a sock puppet was used to sell dog food at cost with free shipping. (what could possibly go wrong?) Their stock fell from $11 to $0.19 in a matter of days, and the bubble burst, but it was fun to watch while it lasted.



The politics of the time were fun

If you grew up with memories of the Berlin wall falling down, or the Vietnam war, then the 90s were probably just a calm after a more chaotic period from the past. As a teenager, the 90s were all you knew. The attack on the twin towers had not happened yet and the times of Bush Senior were too early to remember or be concerned with. 

This was a time in history where it was great to be a teenager, and for the most part, there was a sense that “things are ok and are going to be ok.” Parents had to describe the difference between “sex” and “sexual relations”, as did the president, but parents were not forced to describe why child molesters were running for office, or why politicians were encouraging nuclear war or making racist comments on a daily basis as many do today. 

Are there things that were a little strange as a teenager? Sure, Milli Vanilli got busted, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan got into it. Looking back as a thirty something I realize the Rodney King riots were much more important than I remember, but as a child of the 90’s, the excitement of Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on SNL was the news, and we thought it was awesome.



Gap was on top of their game

The 90’s didn’t really make a lot of sense from a fashion perspective. Jeans seemed to be baggy in all the wrong places, but nobody really seemed to care. If you were cool, you had GAP jeans, or khakis made popular by swing dancing on television. Later Abercrombie would come on the scene, but for much of the 90s we all wanted to wear GAP jeans and grow up to be a cast member on the TV show Friends.

This was the primary style for kids of the time, at least in my corner of the world, but there were certainly other things going on. Grunge was happening, and living near Seattle provided a front row seat for the movement, but it seemed like something older kids on drugs did. There were remnants of the 80s, usually taking the form of baggy pants and neon colors, but disco was dead and what took its place was something that was more refined, yet hard to pin down. 

What is striking about this time looking back is the way the media had influence on what we decided to wear everyday. We didn’t have millions of social influencers like we find today. There were maybe 10 or 20. We all watched Friends the TV show, and decided to look like Chandler. If he started wearing Big Dog sweat shirts, there was a good chance a local clothing store would start to sell them.



If you had Lunchables, you were rich ( and cool )

In the 90s Lunchabels were cool, mainly due to aggressive marketing campaigns. Packing a portable meat and cheese platter in the 90s was a sign that your parents had money. For me, this was a special occasion thing. If you grew up on the other side of the tracks like I did, you had public school lunches, which entailed burgers, tater-tots, frozen veggies, and a small milk carton.

The public school lunches were not great, but if you had money to blow, get ready for a trip to diabetes central. Coke and Pepsi had a strong presence in every school. If you wanted to eat a candy bar, a bag of chips, a soft pretzel, and wash it down with a can of Coke everyday for lunch, you could knock yourself out, and many did. As less than rich kids, we envied those with cash to blow, they probably have diabetes now.

I think most of our parents shopped at the same grocery stores, as the snacks we packed were often the same. Fruit rollups and fruit by the foot were very common as was trading. “I will trade you this milk for your fruit roll-up”, “throw in those Shark Bites and you have yourself a deal”. The point is, nobody in the 90s was eating kale salads. At best we had Lunchables, which is not saying much from a health perspective.



Tamagotchis where not just “A Thing”, they were a phenomenon

There was this weird thing in the 90’s where a certain trend would completely sweep through society. One of the best examples include Tamagatchis, a little Japanese consumer electronics device with three buttons and a screen. The interface of which was terrible, but that didn’t stop us form spending countless hours playing with it.

Tamagotchis were digital pets, and the goal was to keep it alive by “feeding it” and tending to it’s needs. Why did we play with these things? I have no idea. You have to remember that TV was the primary marketing channel, and a good marketing campaign could create a feeding frenzy on the playground and in homes. Parents didn’t have Amazon, so if K-mart had it and the TV said we needed it, it was usually in our Christmas stocking.

Tamagatchis, are a great example, but there were plenty of others. We all had Super-Soakers and Nerf guns as Holiday presents. At a certain point “Pogs” (collectable paper disks that can be traded and used in a winner takes all game) became a thing. X-men cards. The list goes on. What remains is this feeling that there was always a “cool” thing, and that thing was dictated by the media and major distribution channels.



AOL was the news, chat, email, and maybe an MP3

Not everyone had the internet in the 90s. But eventually most families decided to pick up a Compaq Presario or Gateway 2000 for a small fortune that could connect to the internet using dialup and display it on a 15inch CRT monitor that doubled as a heater. Computers also had a “turbo button” that turned on an LED, and had absolutely no impact on performance.

If you wanted to check your email it was best to do it at a time you were not expecting calls. After a couple minutes of beeps and squeaks your computer “might” connect to the internet using AOL. Then a bunch of windows would pop up, and you could get the latest news along with some signature sound bytes. “You’ve got mail” If you were cool, you might chat with people on AIM as well.

Eventually Napster became a thing, but it was common to start 15 downloads at night, then in the morning find that 3 of 15 had become an MP3, one of which was the song you wanted. Nobody really did anything with the internet in the 90s, but there were enough movies like “The Net” staring Sandra Bullock, and “Hackers” staring Angelina Jolie, that it seemed cool just to be connected.



There were all sorts of weird fundraisers

Here’s an idea. If you want to change the cardiovascular health of children in public schools, perhaps don’t feed them pizza, fruit snacks, chips and soda for lunch everyday? That would be too easy, so what did the public school system do in the 90s? Jump Rope for Heart!, here’s how it works.

All the kids get corralled into the gymnasium and some motivational speaker with a Garth Brooks microphone starts getting the kids all fired up. “Who’s excited to jump rope for heart?”, crickets… “I said, who’s excited to jump rope for heart!!!”, a heart shape costume jumps on stage while the kids scream (a combination of excitement and terror )

Here’s where things get interesting. All the kids get a catalog full of gifts for the holidays full of weird crap like wrapping paper and cheap toys with a 1000x markup. The kids then go door to door selling the crap in the catalog to unsuspecting community members. The real trick is that it is linked to how many minutes they jump rope “for heart”. The community members and the kids are both confused.

Everything culminates into “jumprope day”, which is where the kids make good on the commitment to jumprope for their heart, while putting the hard earned dollars of the community into the pocket of the school. The kids get all jacked up on Coke and Pepsi and then turn those wrapping papers sales into dollars through jumping rope in the school gym. Welcome to North America. 



All children in 90’s advertisements were on Crack

If you take a look at advertisements form the 90’s they were full of kids who looked like they were on crack. My theory is that the adult cocaine habits of the 80’s made their way into the 90’s marketing campaigns, but the real reason is a bit of a mystery. One thing is clear, 90s toy commercials had a formula: GET EXCITED!!!!

Just for the record, Creepy Crawlers were basically the easy bake oven but marketed to boys. A little machine that made bugs from rubber molds and goop that was heat set and probably caused cancer. In reality, it never really worked, but we all saw the same advertisements and circled it in the Sears catalog. There were no Amazon reviews from parents explaining that the advertisements were a misrepresentation of the product.

Other honorable mentions include domino rally, nerf guns, super soakers, and bop-it, all of which contained a bunch of kids playing with the toys and completely loosing their marbles out of sheer excitement for the toy existing. The funny thing is we all got these toys for Christmas, and since we didn’t know what to do when it happened, we just flipped out like we were on Crack, because that’s what the TV told us to do. 



Cell Phones Were Big, Physically and in Society

In the 90s, if you had a cell phone, you were important. Families with money had a cell phone, and two land lines; one that could be connected to the internet and one for taking calls. Car phones looked less like a cell phone and more like a shoebox with an antenna and a corded phone attached to it. 

Some people also had a pager. My middle school math teacher for instance had a “baby-pager” which he would wear in the event that his wife started having a baby. My friends dad, the one that drove a BMW and worked for Microsoft; he had a laserdisc player, a pager, and a car-phone. “Pause the laser-disk honey, I just got a page, I need to drive my BMW into work and talk on my car phone about how to fix Windows 95. Very important.

If you could afford a cell phone it would usually go on your belt for men, (so f-ing cool right now) or in a giant handbag for woman. Texting was not as simple as typing on a smartphone keyboard is now. The “1” was also the “a,b & c” key, so texting involved a lot of strange double and triple pressing which you would need to commit to muscle memory. Something we all learned to do surprisingly.



Educational Technology was Not What it is Today

If you have not played the Oregon Trail, then you have not lived. Truth be told the game is terrible, but we all played it in the 90s. Why? well you got the sense that the public school system had $10 for pencils, and $5 for educational technology. Each of the educators probably pooled resources to buy a floppy disc that was sold as the future of education.

Sex education must of had a $2 budget, because we learned about the birds and bees using a slide projector, complete with audio tapes from the 50s that made the “next slide” beep sound. For those that don’t know, the Oregon Trail was played as a way to learn about the exploration of the west, and to understand deductive reasoning skills. We learned things like “is it better to be a carpenter or a doctor?” Even at the time it felt like a history teacher autopilot, but we didn’t really care. It was a fun thing to do after eating a slice of pizza and drinking a Pepsi for lunch.

We all learned a lot about the Oregon Trail, or at least that is what the school system wants to think. Truth be told we were all just trying not to die from typhoid while figuring out if it was best to ford the river or not. NEVER ford the river. Truth be told, If I had to teach a bunch of annoying kids, I would probably tell them all to play an educational video game for an hour, but I’m glad that technology has become more advanced than the Oregon Trail since.



Final Thoughts

This blog posts makes more than a few cheap shots at the public school system, and the technology of the 90s, but there are some things worth mentioning before ending. The public school system has a lot of room for improvement, especially when it comes to healthy food options, but I had amazing teachers, and for that I am forever grateful.

My physics teacher in high school was an ex-navy nuclear physicist and would often tech advanced topics during lunch. My computer teacher in middle school noticed that I was picking up concepts faster than the rest and introduced me to coding. Eventually these lessons paved a road to working for NASA and a full-ride to MIT, two things that would have never been possible without compassionate mentors, which I believe the public school system is full of, and we often don’t take time to recognize them.

The internet was not great in the 90s, but it was good enough. As a teenager, I was the fist generation to learn to code on a budget that was below that of what a major corporation could afford. I did this with very little money, and a 56k modem. If this continues, there is a good chance my kids will be sequencing our dogs DNA in a decade or two, and that is exciting. Really scary, because my kids will probably be as crazy as I am, but also exciting. Thanks for reading.