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There’s A Scientific Reason TikTok Is So Nostalgic For The 2010s

Ironically, users on the app are reminiscing about a time when “TiK ToK” was just the name of a Kesha song.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images, Graham Denholm/Getty Image, Jeff Kravitz/Getty

“How did I end up here again?” The text over 20-year-old Vanessa Melero’s TikTok reads. Dressed in a jean jacket, a crop top, and ripped black jeans complemented by dark eyeliner, Melero stares at herself incredulously in the mirror. Mouth agape, she glances down at the blk. Water in her hand as Two Door Cinema Club’s “What You Know” plays. By the time her eyes meet the camera at the end, her realization is clear: she has unintentionally emulated her 2014 self.

Melero (@nessmochi) is from Long Island, New York, and vividly remembers the distinct trends of the peak Tumblr era, when things like American Apparel, Arctic Monkeys, and choker necklaces were everywhere. Apparently, so does everyone else: “I didn’t even describe the time period but everyone just understood. I got comments like, ‘Oh my God Tumblr 2015 is coming back!’ ‘Please bring this back!’” Melero says. The TikTok, posted on Aug. 25, received over 850,000 views and over 186,000 likes.

The demand for nostalgia on TikTok is booming — and there’s one time period in particular that’s generating a lot of popularity: the 2010s, and especially 2012–2016. Whether it’s cozying up and rewatching the entire Twilight saga on Netflix, checking out old MTV VMA award shows, or logging into Tumblr for the first time in seven years, 20-somethings have been eager to revisit the not-so-distant past of their teen years. As of December 2021, #2014 has 1.2 billion views on TikTok, while #2016 has even more at 2.1 billion. The simple #nostalgia has 22 billion views and is a “trending meme,” according to TikTok’s special landing page for the hashtag. A more specific “2010s nostalgia” search has over 731 million views. “Things that have already happened are very comforting and familiar,” Melero explains. “I feel like we all love things that are familiar because COVID right now is so unfamiliar.”

Gen Z [is] nostalgic for their own childhood and they aren’t that old to begin with.

Andrew Abeyta, Ph.D., an assistant professor of social psychology at ​​Rutgers University-Camden who specializes in the psychological benefits of nostalgia, says this generation’s sudden preoccupancy with nostalgia has many factors, including the pandemic.

“When you're in your early 20s and you're trying to figure out who you are, you’re trying to get into your career, get ahead; perhaps you’re on your own for the first time. All of this is really stressful, and on top of that you have to navigate a pandemic,” Abeyta says. “Stress and uncertainty motivates people to reach for times in their life that weren’t stressful or so fraught. These [nostalgic memories] were just times when you felt less stressed and concerned about the future. Maybe living more in the moment, and just enjoying yourself.”

Some of the periods being romanticized happened less than six years ago, but given recent circumstances, it makes sense that young people are already looking back. “The pandemic has [perhaps] messed with people's perceptions of time,” Abeyta explains. “For me, it has felt that this pandemic has been going on way longer than almost two years. In terms of psychological distance between now and before the pandemic, it just seems like a long time away.”

Krystine I. Batcho, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and professor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, who began researching nostalgia in the mid-1990s, agrees. She calls what’s happening for 20-somethings today a “foreshortening of time.”

“Gen Z [is] nostalgic for their own childhood and they aren’t that old to begin with, so if they’re feeling nostalgic for a time that was seven or eight years ago, they were only in high school or junior high school,” Batcho explains. She says the appeal of the 2010s isn’t just about what was happening culturally, but also about where Gen Z was developmentally. “[Childhood is] a time when we were loved just for being alive, when we didn’t have to prove ourselves. Many young adults say, ‘I’m glad I’m an adult but I really miss the carefreeness and innocence of childhood, when it never occurred to me that I couldn’t trust someone or that people would betray or judge me.’”

It wasn’t that things were so good [in the 2010s], but I think that there was more of an air of mass ignorance.

Cody Schmitz (who goes by Cody Gene under the handle @_codygene), a 26-year-old TikToker from Lawrence, Kansas, also theorizes this nostalgia craving may have to do with the stress of world events.

“It wasn’t that things were so good [in the 2010s], but I think that there was more of an air of mass ignorance on topics, whether it’s race, climate change, or public health,” Schmitz says. “I think it was normalized for adults at that time to sweep [things] under the rug. Now it’s not really normalized to sweep that stuff under the rug because the internet will always bring that stuff to the forefront.”

With social media a bigger part of everyday life for Gen Z than previous generations, our generation is constantly front and center for big cultural moments — including traumatic ones. This phenomenon reached an all-time high in the summer of 2020, when being on social media meant seeing graphic videos of police brutality, daily statistics tallying up thousands of COVID deaths, anxiety-provoking climate change news, and more. According to Hedonometer, a data research project from the Computational Story Lab of the University of Vermont that measures expressions of emotion on social media, May 31, 2020 — six days after George Floyd’s murder, and in the middle of the first COVID spike — was the saddest day on Twitter in the past 13 years.

Meanwhile, a 2018 American Psychological Association (APA) report found Gen Z and millennials are more likely than past generations to “report their mental health as fair or poor.” The study pointed to pressing social and environmental issues as some of the culprits for this increase, such as school shootings, sexual assault reports, and the deportation of immigrant families.

For Schmitz, thinking back to the last decade is about getting the chance to be hopeful again. On Aug. 18, he posted an homage to the year 2010, a time before the widespread popularization of iPhones and Instagram, when a night out with friends had to be uploaded to Facebook through a cheap digital camera; a time when Rihanna’s hair was red and Justin Bieber’s was still styled in his infamous bowl cut. His slideshow-style TikTok received 1.1 million views and over 270,000 likes.

“I think [the nostalgia] also has to deal with a coming-of-age thing,” Schmitz explains, noting he was just starting high school in 2010. “You’re now a teenager and you’re ready to build your identity. There’s hopefulness. I was thinking at that time, ‘This is the kind of adult I’m going to be,’ ‘This is what it’s going to be like for me when I’m older.’ Just a lot of optimism.”

I think [Gen Z] will be resilient.

Batcho says part of the appeal of nostalgia, even recent nostalgia, is the sense of control. “All of the lockdowns and mandates  —  that’s nothing that Gen Z chose to do  —  so when these changes occur suddenly and unexpectedly, that’s threatening, psychologically speaking,” she says. “You feel like, ‘Well maybe I don’t have control over everything.’” Nostalgia helps people reclaim the comfort of feeling secure about what’s to come. “The one place we can find control is in the past, because we know what we did when we were 8 or 16 years old.”

Kelsie Carlos (@y2kelsie), 24, from Seattle, Washington, agrees control is a big part of the draw of 2010s nostalgia. On Aug. 12, she posted a recap of the 2011 VMAs, which she calls “iconic.” The TikTok revisited memorable moments from the show, like Jelena still being together, Beyoncé’s first pregnancy reveal, and Lady Gaga as her male alter-ego, Jo Calderone. It received over 870,000 views and over 255,000 likes. “Something so appealing about nostalgia is the fact that it’s so comforting. It’s kind of a method of escapism,” Carlos explains. “I might come home from a stressful day and not want to think about the direction that I’m going with my life. I just want to forget about that and turn on That’s So Raven or Hannah Montana. It brings me back to that mode of being 12 years old and not having to think about those things.”

But instead of a crutch, this generation’s use of nostalgia may actually be their secret weapon — at least according to Batcho. By looking to the past and constantly questioning the now, these 20-somethings could bounce back stronger in the future.

“My hope is that the nostalgia that Gen Z is being immersed in will actually benefit them to be more resilient,” Batcho says. She sees nostalgia as a floatie, buoying the 20-somethings today while they figure out the path of their adult lives beyond this weird, distinct point in history. “When Gen Z is independent financially in their careers, I think they will be resilient,” she says.  “And part of it will be because the nostalgia carried them through.”