We have fewer friends to lean on, study says 25% in U.S. say they have no real confidants. Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just two.
It found that men and women of every race, age and education level reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in 1985. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of their nuclear family than in 1985 but intimacy within families was down, too.
Study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke University in Durham, called the sharp declines startling.
“You don’t usually expect major features of social life to change very much from year to year or even decade to decade,” she said. The findings are reported in the June issue of the American Sociological Review.
Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-reaching effects. Among them:
• Fewer people to turn to for help in crises (i.e.natural disasters).
• Fewer watchdogs to deter neighborhood crime.
• Fewer visitors for hospital patients.
• Fewer participants in community groups.
The decline puts added pressure on spouses, families and counselors.
“People are isolated in their own families,” said Laurie Thorner, a therapist in Annapolis, Md., since the 1980s. “I definitely agree that there’s less support for people.”
One explanation for friendship’s decline is that adults are working longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who when they were homemakers tended to have strong community networks. In addition, commutes are longer, and TV viewing and computer use are up.
As connections to neighbors and social clubs decline, Smith-Lovin said, “From a social point of view it means you’ve got more people isolated in a small network of people who are just like them.”
She speculated that social isolation may have made Hurricane Katrina worse. “The people we saw sitting on roofs after Katrina hit were probably people without close ties to someone with a car to get them out,” she said.
She’s right, said Bob Howard, spokesman for the American Red Cross’ Hurricane Relief Project.
“People that had friends and family were probably most likely to evacuate,” he said.
Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” the 2000 best-seller on declining American civic life, said his research generally tracked the findings of Smith-Lovin and Miller McPherson, a sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
People pay a price when bonds of friendship weaken, Putnam said. “Communities that have tighter social networks have lower crime and lower mortality and less corruption and more effective government and less tax evasion” he said.
The Duke-Arizona research team’s findings are based on questions that they added to one of the nation’s classic attitude polls, the General Social Survey, which the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center has conducted every two years since 1972.