Social connections

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
March 2018

For at least 150 years, analysts and pundits have worried that modernity would reduce social connections and ties. Better transportation, greater access to college, and the concentration of jobs in cities increases the incentive for people to move away from family and childhood friends. Cities are crowded, which can make it more difficult to develop lasting bonds. Technological advance provides more sources of distraction and access to individualized entertainment, reducing the time available for friends or family. As more women move into paid work, they have less time to socialize. And as government public insurance programs cushion more of the risks and hardships we face, voluntary organizations, a key source of interaction and community, may diminish in prevalence.

On the other hand, most of these developments could potentially have the opposite effect. Geographic mobility might increase the number of friends we have. Living in a more populous area, such as a city or suburb, boosts the number of potential friends. New technologies — telephones, email, text messaging, social media — enhance our ability to communicate with family and friends. For women, work is a potential source of contacts and friendships. And by reducing deprivation and improving capabilities among the less advantaged, government services and transfers might decrease isolation.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, sociologists Fernand Tonnies, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim described the shift from the “gemeinschaft” society of small villages, which emphasizes personal relationships and family, to the individualistic, atomistic “gesellschaft” society common in large cities. In 1950, David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd portrayed an America in which adults are less and less connected with one another, whether by traditions or traditional institutions. In the 1970s, Vance Packard’s A Nation of Strangers warned that personal connections of all sorts were weakening.

In recent decades pessimistic assessments in this vein have proliferated.1 In Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Robert Putnam examined a host of indicators of social connections. The evidence, he concluded, suggests that “across a very wide range of activities, the last several decades have witnessed a striking diminution of regular contacts with our friends and neighbors. We spend less time in conversation over meals, we exchange visits less often, we engage less often in leisure activities that encourage casual social interaction, we spend more time watching (admittedly, some of it in the presence of others) and less time doing. We know our neighbors less well, and we see old friends less often.”2

In 2016, Yuval Levin posited, in his book The Fractured Republic, that “As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work otherwise performed by mediating institutions — from families and communities to local governments and charities — individuals become increasingly atomized.” The result, according to Levin, is that “We have set loose a scourge of loneliness and isolation.”3

In 2017, Jean Twenge examined patterns of loneliness and isolation among teenagers since the advent of the smartphone a decade earlier. Her conclusion: “The twin rise of the smartphone and social media has caused an earthquake of a magnitude we’ve not seen in a very long time, if ever. There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives — and making them seriously unhappy.”4

A major exception to these pessimistic assessments comes from Claude Fischer. In his 2011 book Still Connected, Fischer undertook the most comprehensive and detailed examination of available data on social connections and ties. He concluded as follows5:

“The question that this book has posed is whether and how Americans’ relationships with family and friends changed between 1970 and 2010. The short answer, based on a canvass of published research and available survey data, is: not much. Some of the ways in which Americans engaged with people in their immediate circles changed, but the intimacy and support of close family and friendship ties stayed about the same. Few Americans were socially isolated, and the percentage of those who were did not increase. The number of family and friends with whom people reported being close stayed about the same. Americans got together with one another in set-aside home activities like dinner parties less often, but they communicated with one another electronically more often. Americans expected to get about as much help from family and friends as they had earlier. And American feelings about their social relationships stayed about the same or became more upbeat.”

What does an updated look at the evidence tell us about social connections, isolation, and loneliness in the United States?

ISOLATION

Let’s begin with the question of how much time Americans spend with family. Figure 1 shows that the share of families who frequently eat dinner together declined in the 1980s but has been fairly constant since then.

Figure 1. Family frequently eats dinner together
“Family usually eats dinner together”: Share of Americans saying they definitely agree, generally agree, or moderately agree that “Our whole family usually eats dinner together.” Other response options: definitely disagree, generally disagree, moderately disagree. The top line is for households with two or more adults. The lower line is for all households. Data source: Claude Fischer, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011, figure 3.1, using data from DDB Needham. “Family eats dinner together 6-7 nights a week”: Other response options: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Data source: Lydia Saad, “Most U.S. Families Still Routinely Dine Together at Home,” Gallup, 2013.

Robert Putnam reported in 2000 that “Beyond mealtime, virtually all forms of family togetherness became less common over the last quarter of the twentieth century. Between 1976 and 1997, according to Roper polls of families with children aged eight to seventeen, vacationing together fell from 53 percent to 38 percent, watching TV together from 54 percent to 41 percent, attending religious services together from 38 percent to 31 percent, and ‘just sitting and talking’ together from 53 percent to 43 percent.”6

On the other hand, the amount of time parents spend with their children — at playdates, sports practices, the grocery store — has increased since 2000.7 And as figure 2 shows, there has been no decline since the mid-1970s in the share of Americans, around 55-60%, who say they spend social evenings several times a month or more with relatives.

Figure 2. Spend a social evening with relatives several times a month or more
Share of US adults. Question: “Would you use this card and tell me which answer comes closest to how often you do the following things: Spend a social evening with relatives.” Response options: almost daily, several times a week, several times a month, once a month, several times a year, once a year, never. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series socrel.

In Still Connected, Claude Fischer concludes that “This pattern of results suggests that Americans were no less committed to their immediate families and other relatives in the 2000s than before….”8

What about time with friends and neighbors? In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam reported declines in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s in playing cards, participating in league bowling, going out to bars and nightclubs, participating in youth sports (boys only), and engaging in informal socializing (visiting with friends, attending parties, informal conversation, and so on).9

The General Social Survey periodically asks Americans how often they spend a social evening out with neighbors. As figure 3 shows, the share who say they do so several times a month or more dropped in the late 1970s and through the 1980s. Since, then, however, there has been no change. The survey asks the same question about friends who live outside the neighborhood. As we see in figure 4, here there has been no decline at all. Data from DDB Needham surveys are consistent with this picture.10

Figure 3. Spend a social evening with neighbors several times a month or more
Share of US adults. Question: “Would you use this card and tell me which answer comes closest to how often you do the following things: Spend a social evening with neighbors.” Response options: almost daily, several times a week, several times a month, once a month, several times a year, once a year, never. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series socommun.

Figure 4. Spend a social evening with friends who live outside the neighborhood several times a month or more
Share of US adults. Question: “Would you use this card and tell me which answer comes closest to how often you do the following things: Spend a social evening with friends who live outside the neighborhood.” Response options: almost daily, several times a week, several times a month, once a month, several times a year, once a year, never. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series socfrend.

In his review of the data in 2011, Claude Fischer concluded that there has been no decline in overall contact with family and friends if we count contact via phone, email, and social media.11 Figure 5 shows the share of Americans who say that yesterday they called a friend or relative just to talk. The flat line, extending through 2014, is consistent with Fischer’s assessment.

Figure 5. Called a friend or relative yesterday just to talk
Share of US adults. Question: “Yesterday did you … call a friend or relative just to talk?” Response options: yes, no. Data source: Pew Research Center.

According to data marshaled by Jean Twenge, smartphones and social media have changed the type of contact among American teenagers. As figure 6 shows, we see sharp declines over the past decade in the share of 12th graders (high school seniors) who ever go out on dates, who attend parties once a month or more, and, most revealingly, who say they get together with friends every day or nearly every day. While these forms of face-to-face contact have decreased, they’ve been replaced by contact via texting and social media. As Twenge puts it, “The timing of the recent, severe drop in going out and getting together with friends … occurred right when smartphones became popular and social media use really took off. Time spent with friends in person has been replaced by time spent with friends (and virtual friends) online.”12 Texting and social media were nonexistent prior to 2007. As figure 7 shows, both are now heavily used by 12th graders.

Figure 6. Face-to-face contact among 12th graders
Share of 12th graders. “Go out on dates”: ever go out on dates. “Attend parties”: attend parties once a month or more. “Get together with friends often”: get together with friends every day or nearly every day. Data source: Jean M. Twenge, iGen, 2017, figures 1.2, 3.1, and 3.2, using Monitoring the Future data.

Figure 7. Texting and social media time among 12th graders
Average hours per day. Data source: Jean M. Twenge, iGen, 2017, figure 2.2, using Monitoring the Future data.

Has there been an increase in the share of Americans who don’t have any friends? Since 1976, Gallup has occasionally asked “Not counting your relatives, about how many close friends would you say you have?” And since the mid-1980s the General Social Survey has asked about “close friends.” The trend for average number of friends has been flat. The share saying “zero” has been less than 5%, and it too has been flat.13

In Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg reports that over the past half century the share of Americans who live alone has risen steadily. Most of this is by choice. (Some of it is due to rising life expectancy, which means more elderly persons live alone for lengthy periods after a spouse or partner dies.) Klinenberg concludes that those who live alone aren’t condemned to be isolated or feel lonely: “On the contrary, the evidence suggests that people who live alone compensate by becoming more socially active than those who live with others.”14

How does the United States compare to other rich democratic nations? In 2007 the International Social Survey Programme asked respondents how often they get together with friends. Figure 8 shows the share who said they do so several times a month or more. The US is toward the low end of the country ranking.

Figure 8. Get together with friends several times a month or more
Share of adults. Question: “How often do you do each of the following activities in your free time? Get together with friends.” Response options: daily, several times a week, several times a month, several times a year or less, never. The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: International Social Survey Program (ISSP), “Leisure Time and Sports” module, 2007.

Since the mid-2000s the Gallup World Poll has regularly asked “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” Figure 9 shows the share responding yes. That share is lower in the United States than in most of the other countries, but the US position is heavily influenced by its large decline during the great recession in 2008-09, so it may not tell us much about Americans’ comparative degree of isolation.

Figure 9. Social support
Share of adults responding yes to the question: “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” The vertical axis doesn’t begin at zero. Data source: Gallup World Poll, via the World Happiness Report 2017, online appendix. “Asl” is Australia; “Aus” is Austria.

LONELINESS

So isolation doesn’t seem to have increased to any appreciable degree. Even so, Americans may have gotten lonelier, because isolation and loneliness aren’t strongly correlated across individuals. Some isolated people are lonely, but others aren’t. Some non-isolated persons aren’t lonely, while some are.15 (The one notable exception is people without a romantic partner/spouse, who tend to feel lonelier than those who do have one.)

Loneliness is commonly measured via answers to questions such as

  • How often do you feel that you lack companionship?
  • How often do you feel that there are people you can turn to?
  • How often do you feel that there are people who really understand you?
  • Do you have someone with whom you’re comfortable discussing important matters?
  • Do you have someone who can help you if you’re sick, or if you need money?
  • If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?
  • How satisfied are you with your friendships?
  • Would you like to spend more time with friends?

Reviewing the available data for the period from 1970 to 2010, Claude Fischer finds that fewer than 10% of American adults reported being lonely according to these types of questions, and there was no change through these years.16

A more direct question, asked only a handful of times over the past half century, is “During the past few weeks, did you ever feel very lonely or remote from other people?” Figure 10 shows the share responding yes to this question from the early 1960s to the early 2000s. The data suggest no noteworthy change over this lengthy period, but they don’t, unfortunately, tell us anything about the past two decades.

Figure 10. Felt very lonely or remote in the past few weeks
Share of US adults. Data source: National Opinion Research Center and Gallup, via Claude Fischer, Still Connected, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011, figure 6.1.

In recent years there has been growing concern about the impact of social media on loneliness among teenagers. The period in which we are likely to observe effects is after 2007, when the first iPhone was released. In her book iGen, Jean Twenge examines data from the Monitoring the Future surveys of American teenagers. As we see in figure 11, there has indeed been a sharp rise since 2007 in the share of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders who say “A lot of times I feel lonely.” Twenge also notes that the increase has been larger among girls than among boys. This, she says, is what we would predict: “Girls use social media more often, giving them additional opportunities to feel excluded and lonely when they see their friends or classmates getting together without them.”17

Figure 11. Feel lonely a lot of times
Share of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders who agree or mostly agree. Question: “How much do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements? A lot of times I feel lonely.” Other response options: neither, mostly disagree, disagree. Data source: Jean M. Twenge, iGen, 2017, figure 4.3, using Monitoring the Future data.

On the other hand, unhappiness doesn’t seem to have increased among teenagers. Figure 12 shows the share of 12th graders who say they are “not too happy,” as opposed to “very happy” or “pretty happy,” in recent decades. There is no rise over time. Nor, as figure 13 shows, is there any association between the amount of time teenagers spend on social media and their likelihood of being unhappy.

Figure 12. Unhappiness among 12th graders
Share responding “not too happy.” Other response options: very happy, pretty happy. Data source: Alexandra Samuel, “Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids,” JSTOR Daily, 2017, figure 1, using Monitoring the Future data.

Figure 13. Social media use and unhappiness among 12th graders
Data source: Alexandra Samuel, “Yes, Smartphones Are Destroying a Generation, But Not of Kids,” JSTOR Daily, 2017, figure 3, using Monitoring the Future data.

Teenage suicide has increased since 2007, particularly among girls. Figure 14 shows the female suicide rate over time for three age groups. Among 15-to-19-year-olds there was a rapid rise after 2007. The rate of increase was faster among this group than among 25-to-44-year-old women. However, it wasn’t more rapid than among 45-to-64-year-olds, so it isn’t clear that this trend supports the hypothesis that smartphones and social media have increased problematic loneliness among American teenagers.18

Figure 14. Female suicides by age group
Per 100,000 persons in the age group. Data source: National Center for Health Statistics, Health, United States, 2016, table 30.

There is good reason to suspect that smartphones and social media have increased perceptions of exclusion and loneliness among some American teens. But it’s too soon to tell how large this effect is, how long it will last, and what impact it has on overall subjective well-being.

SUMMARY

Since the onset of industrialization, societal observers have predicted a rise in isolation and loneliness, and in recent decades this view has become increasingly prominent. However, in his thorough examination of the data in 2011, Claude Fischer concluded that over the past half century “Americans’ relationships with family and friends were — perhaps surprisingly to some commentators — robust and lasting.”19 With the possible exception of the recent impact of smartphones and social media on teen loneliness, that assessment continues to hold.


  1. In addition to those cited in this and the ensuing paragraphs, see Lynn Smith-Lovin, Matthew Brashears, and Miller McPherson, “The Ties That Bind Are Fraying,” Contexts, 2008. These researchers looked at responses at two points in time to a public opinion survey question that asked “Think back over the last six months and the people with whom you discussed the things most important to you. How many were there?” According to the researchers, in 2004 “Americans had one-third fewer confidants than two decades earlier. In 2004, many more people said they don’t discuss matters of importance with anyone.” It turns out, however, that these data may have been misleading. See Claude Fischer, Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970, Russell Sage Foundation, 2011. 
  2. Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Simon and Schuster, 2000, p. 115. 
  3. Yuval Levin, The Fractured Republic, Basic Books, 2015, pp. 45, 88. 
  4. Jean M. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” The Atlantic, 2017. See also Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, Atria Books, 2017. 
  5. Fischer, Still Connected, ch. 7. 
  6. Putnam, Bowling Alone, p. 101. See also Fischer, Still Connected, ch. 3. 
  7. Fischer, Still Connected, ch. 3. 
  8. Fischer, Still Connected, ch. 3. 
  9. Putnam, Bowling Alone, ch. 6. 
  10. Fischer, Still Connected, figure 4.8. 
  11. Fischer, Still Connected, ch. 4. 
  12. Twenge, iGen, ch. 3. 
  13. Fischer, Still Connected, ch. 4. 
  14. Eric Klinenberg, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Penguin, 2012. 
  15. Fischer, Still Connected. 
  16. Fischer, Still Connected, chs. 5-6. 
  17. Twenge, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” 
  18. See also Mike Males, “The Truth about Teen Suicide,” Washington Monthly, 2018. 
  19. Fischer, Still Connected, Preface.