The Friend-less American
It's been said that one can never have too many friends. Yet despite greater online connectivity, the average Americans has fewer friends that he or she did 20 years ago, with nearly a quarter claiming to have "zero" close friends and half citing one or two.
The findings are the result of a survey of 1,500 Americans conducted for a paper to be published in the American Sociological Review. "This is a big social change, and it indicates something that's not good for our society," said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author of the paper.
The results were compared to a similar study done in 1985, in which respondents cited having between three and five close friends on average. The decline in friendships is attributed to Americans lacking the resources to form and maintain lasting relationships -- working longer hours, commuting farther, changing jobs and being downsized more frequently, staying single, having fewer children and shunning traditional social organizations (the "bowling alone" phenomenon). Our high-tech, convenience-oriented society, moreover, enables us to conduct our daily business with minimal human interaction. In many "bedroom communities," neighbors rarely speak to one another and have little in common, if they're not completely transient, and neighbors often regard one another as nuisances or even threats rather than as friends. Perhaps it's not surprising that a generation taught not to talk to strangers would find it difficult to regard them as "friends they haven't met yet."
Sociologists are concerned about this trend, not only because friendships contribute to individuals' psychological and even physical well-being, but because friends provide a social "safety net" that can be invaluable in times of crisis. Smith-Lovin cites hurricanes as examples of friendships serving as lifesavers: "It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them. It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?'"
Odds are that such isolation will only worsen in the future unless Americans make fundamental changes in their work and social lives. Improved work-life balance may help, along with communities that are designed to foster interaction and common activities. Social groups can also foster individual relationships in a safe and inviting atmosphere, as can leveraging online social networks to promote face-to-face activities.