The continued popularity of 90s hit TV show Friends shows just how lonely young people are

Today's kids are still seeking out a human connection – but this time round they’re observers rather than participants

Friends: Monica wears turkey on her head in 'The One With All the Thanksgivings'

Friends has been named as the most popular TV programme for young people in the UK.

No, it’s not 1999. The show that gave us catchphrases as timeless as "we were on a break" and "how you doin’?" and spawned countless copycat haircuts apparently remains just as appealing 20 years on.

Many of the five- to 16-year-olds survey by Childwise for its latest report on young people and the media were born around the time Friends first aired. But the sitcom has been hauled into the modern day after being added to Netflixa major factor in its newly-acquired younger fanbase.

Friends is an unlikely success story for the streaming service. Its launch on the streaming platform was met with a wave of criticism, with many former fans renouncing the show over its sexist, homophobic and transphobic jokes and a general lack of diversity now rarely seen on television.

Of course, those dodgy elements were there for viewers the first time round: homosexuality was played for laughs far too often, female characters were slut-shamed for the same behaviour that got a high-five for their male counterparts, and the series pretty much white-washed Manhattan. But back in the late 1990s critics of these tropes faced inevitable accusations of being po-faced and humourless. That, thankfully, is no longer the case.

The fact is that whole episodes based around the apparent hilarity of a character possibly being gay just aren’t funny – they’re lazy, offensive and dumb. We’ve now seen that it’s possible to make funny, relevant shows such as Broad City, that allow female characters to own and enjoy their sexuality, or where protagonists with interesting and funny storylines happen to be gay, such as Brooklyn 99, without their sexuality becoming the focus of every episode.

Yet Friends is the preferred viewing material for “wokeGeneration Z, which doesn’t make much sense – unless it turns out that these youngsters aren’t as stridently attached to their principles as they’re made out to be (which I rather doubt).

One of the factors in the backlash is the fact that it has been aired to death in the years following its original run. For a while it seemed possible to watch an episode of Friends at any time, even if you hadn’t shelled out for the boxsets, with repeats airing on several channels. When Channel 4 finally sold the series in 2011 – 16 years after it first graced our screens – the reaction was equal parts relief to others’ despair.

Watching Friends on repeat for years undoubtedly diluted the comic effect, because it was a funny programme initially. Its early success cannot be ignored. In the pre-MeToo era, it was more socially acceptable (albeit not morally right) to make offensive jokes and consequently easier to look past them and enjoy the rest of the show.

So it’s perhaps understandable that that generation now meeting Rachel, Joey, Chandler, Monica and Pheobe for the first time are choosing to focus on the funny side, even though society has moved on from gay jokes as a comedy staple. And the fact is that, while many younger viewers have expressed shock at some of the storylines, the numbers don’t lie: they’re still watching.

The Childwise report also revealed another surprising aspect of Friends’ popularity among the young: it’s mainly being watched on mobile phones, with most viewers watching alone.

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It’s already been reported that loneliness is a growing problem among the young, and these statistics on TV viewing provide a perfect, if rather sad, illustration of the issue. There’s something so poignant about the idea of all these kids watching a group of young adults hanging out together and exploring friendship 20 years ago.

The choice of viewing matter shows that young people are still seeking out human connection, but this time round they’re observers rather than participants. Human nature isn’t changing – we all still need friends – but we’re less equipped than ever to take care of ourselves.

It may no longer necessary, practically speaking, to talk to anybody face-to-face in order to communicate with family, friends, co-workers or even businesses, but for social beings like ourselves it’s still very necessary. Watching people pursue relationships on screen, with or without fat jokes and homophobic plotlines, just won’t cut it.

This isn’t a call for a ban on young people watching Friends, on their own or otherwise. But these figures should be cause for some alarm; kids are craving social connections and they need help in making them. That must priority for politicians, teachers and parents.

And if people really just want some alone time with a funny show, they could always opt for the US Office.

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