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TikTok yearbook challenge before and after

The yearbook challenge and the reason we love watching people age

From Boyhood and the Up series to TBT posts and TikTok’s yearbook challenge, there’s something compelling about watching people transform and the passage of time itself

If you’re on TikTok, you’ve probably come across the yearbook challenge. It’s when people post high-school yearbook photos of themselves and their friends and then flash forward to them in the present day, usually at a wedding, ten-year or even 20-year reunion – to “Spirits” by The Strumbellas. These videos garner likes and views in their millions, proving just how obsessed we are not only with nostalgia and physical transformation but with the passage of time.

Yearbook challenges have only recently become popular on TikTok, but the idea of glow-ups and posting old photos on social media has been around for a while. Whether you tagged your photos with #ThrowbackThursday and #FlashbackFriday or recreated old childhood pictures with your now-grown siblings, the internet has always encouraged us to reminisce about how we used to look.

After seeing other people do the yearbook challenge on TikTok, Jade Yamada decided to do it herself at her engagement party, where she knew all of her friends would be looking their best. Yamada has always stayed in close contact with her high school friends, so it made sense she would want to reminisce about their past. “For us, it’s so much fun to look back and reminisce on our memories because we have had so many together. It’s interesting to look back at photos and think about what you were going through at the time and how far you’ve come,” she says.

With over 184,000 likes and 2,500 comments, Yamada was shocked by how much engagement her TikTok got. Although most viewers didn’t know her or her friends personally, they were still very interested and some even commented about their favourite glow-up. While their appearances in the video seem like a huge transformation for viewers, Yamada tells Dazed that it doesn’t feel that way after all these years. “Honestly, we have all been friends for 15-plus years, some of us over 20 years, so it just felt very normal. It’s so different for the viewers seeing us jump from 13-years-old to 29-years-old and seeing this huge difference,” she says.

Yamada and her friends are one of many groups to post their glow-ups on TikTok. Whether it’s the shocking revelation that they all stayed in touch, or the fuzzy feeling you get from seeing their younger selves, videos like hers have become very popular on the platform. But why are we so fascinated with aging, especially when it comes to people we’ve never met?

It’s human nature to be curious about other people’s lives and to be interested in their stories. That’s part of the reason why we resonate so much with media that tells the story of growth throughout the years, like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or the Up series which, beginning in 1964, has been documenting the lives of 14 people across different social classes since they were seven years old, following them through school, relationships and careers. We naturally enjoy seeing people develop because it mirrors our own lives. “There’s a cognitive satisfaction in seeing narratives and stories unfold over time and watching personal growth provides a narrative structure that our brains find appealing,” Hendrix Hammond, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy, tells Dazed.

Hammond also finds that seeing people age over time often makes us feel empathetic towards them, as we tend to compare our own growth to theirs. “It is normal for humans to be fascinated by and watch how other people grow and change over time,” he says. “It’s because we tend to compare ourselves to others, so seeing someone else’s growth and transformation helps us assess our own progress and life choices. It can also be very empathetic and connecting to see someone else’s journey, which can evoke feelings of compassion and understanding.”

Comparing our growth to others can actually encourage us to take on new challenges and experiences. “Watching other people grow stresses our need to become the best version of ourselves. Thus, we might use other peoples’ growth as points of reference for our own lives,” says Chantal Gautier, psychologist and lecturer at the University of Westminster. She also notes that observing others’ growth can actually stimulate our brain’s plasticity, or the ability for our brain to adapt and develop.

It’s a primal instinct for humans to notice changes in our environment. When it comes to noticing changes in others, there are a certain type of neurons in our brains, called mirror neurons, that allow us to empathise with others. “They are the brain cells that get activated both when we act and when we observe the same action performed by someone else. They play a key role in understanding and empathy. So, when we see someone else grow, these neurons might be helping us to ‘feel’ their journey, making it more compelling and relatable,” psychology expert and life coach Bayu Prihandito tells Dazed.

A lot of varied emotions can come from watching people age, like admiration, joy, curiosity and impermanence. However, nostalgia is one of the most powerful things we feel when we see people transform over time. Our younger selves often hold a strong sense of nostalgia. This might be another reason why we enjoy watching stranger’s transformations – although we don’t know everything they’ve been through, we can physically see how far they’ve come.

In contrast, when looking at ourselves in the past we’re fully aware of all the feelings our younger selves experienced. “Our younger selves represent a time of potential, dreams and perhaps fewer responsibilities. Comparing our current selves to that version can be a way of measuring if we’ve lived up to our own expectations. It’s a reflection of our journey and the choices we’ve made over time,” Prihandito says.

Prihandito also says that youth is often associated with beauty and potential, which is part of the reason why we are so interested in seeing people in their younger days. (Think: looking up your favorite celebrity from the 90s or adding “young” to your Google search.) The pressure to appear as youthful as possible is rampant online and contributes to our need to constantly compare ourselves to past versions of ourselves.

So, whether it’s primal instinct or just plain nostalgia, we’ll always have the desire to look back on past versions of ourselves. And, if thinking about a younger version of yourself makes you weak in the knees, rest assured TikTok has a whole catalogue of people who insist on sharing their glow-ups to satisfy your craving.