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Why Americans are spending less time with friends — and what to do about it

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(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

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Listen to our show on the consequences of the friendship gap here.

A full work week. Hours on housework, yard work, time spent with your kids or partner. Then there's all the time we spend online.

Where is the time for friends?

“I think the trickiness of social media is it gives us these snacks of connection," friendship excerpt Marisa Franco says.

"And it's like we've been subsisting on snacks of connection from social media rather than having the sort of nutrient dense meal of in-person connection.”

In fact, Americans are spending measurably less time with friends than they did a decade ago — less than half as much.

And that lack of friendship connections is producing a ripple effect across the country.

“We've seen this widespread national decline in civic and social ... places where people would come together regularly in sort of a structured environment," Dan Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life, says.

Today, On Point: Declining time with friends, increasing loneliness. We hear what to do about Americans’ lost connections.

Guests

Dr. Marisa Franco, psychologist and friendship expert. Author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make and Keep Friends. (@DrMarisaGFranco)

Daniel Cox, director of the Survey Center on American Life. Research fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). (@dcoxpolls)

Also Featured

Alissa Wilkinson, senior culture reporter at VOX. Author of Salty: Lessons in Eating, Drinking, and Living from Revolutionary Women. (@alissamarie)

Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach. (@daniellebayardjackson)

Interview Highlights

On why Americans are spending more time alone

Dr. Marisa Franco: "If you look historically, Robert Putnam's book, Bowling Alone, he kind of looks at up until the from the 50s to the 90s, why are people disengaging from community life? And he finds that a compelling reason is the rise of the television. That before then we used to spend our leisure time around other people, and then we started to spend it alone in the four walls of our living room. But not only that, that television activates this kind of sloth- like state in us. I call it the plop effect. You plop down on the couch, and you won't get off.

"And so I think taking Putnam's research from there now, with the rise of social media and technology use that really started to spike around 2012, the smartphone really began to rise. And we also saw drastic rises in loneliness around that time as well. And so I think there's this theory called displacement theory, which is basically the idea that if we displace our in-person interactions with our social media interactions, we're the most lonely of all.

"Whereas if we use social media to facilitate in-person interactions where the least lonely, we're less lonely than people that are off social media. So, I really think that's what's happening with the decline of friendship. Is that the time we used to spend with friends, we're now spending with our phones."

What are the measurable, meaningful benefits of having deep friendships?

Dr. Marisa Franco: "Loneliness actually impacts how long we live. More than our diet, more than our exercise. You know, people that are most socially connected live longer than people that are otherwise isolated and have a great diet or otherwise isolated and exercise. Well, so it's striking the impact of loneliness on our physical health. It also amplifies the progression of diabetes, of Alzheimer's, obviously, mental health issues. There's a study of 106 factors that influence depressive symptoms, that finds that having a confidante is the number one factor that prevents against depression.

"And so the other thing that I want to say that's friendship specific is that there's actually three different dimensions of loneliness. There's intimate loneliness, which is the desire for a close, intimate connection, like a spouse. But there's also relational loneliness, which is the desire for someone as close as a friend, and collective loneliness, which is a desire for a group working toward a common goal. And so what that loneliness research suggests is that you can't just rely on a spouse to not feel lonely.

"Even if you find a spouse that you really love and you're only spending time with them, it's likely that you'll still end up feeling lonely. And I think a lot of us felt this in the pandemic. We're living with the spouse and we're still like, we needs we need something different. We need some alternative stimulation. So I think, you know what? This research really points to is that we've always needed an entire community to feel whole, and we still do. But we've really forgotten that."

Are we replacing friendship with other things?

Dr. Marisa Franco: "I think we are replacing the other things. I think the trickiness of social media is it gives us these snacks of connection, like I'm seeing my friends' lives, so I kind of feel a little bit connected. I don't feel completely deprived. And it's like we've been subsisting on snacks of connection from social media rather than having the sort of nutrient dense meal of in-person connection."

On a decline in friendships for men

Daniel Cox: "I think one of the major sources of the discrepancy is simply motivation and priorities, that women are more invested in the whole variety of institutions and organizations that help them foster friendships. For instance, mothers are much more involved in the PTA than fathers. And there's you know, we can go into why that is. But as a result, when you ask about people who have developed close relationships through their children's school, you know, women and mothers are much more likely to have, you know, close connections built through that institution.

"So it's not in one way, it's not quite rocket science. You know, if you put in the time, you can reap rewards. We see this in the workplace as well, that we just had came out with a survey that asked about the extent to which women are men are devoting time to social activities, social or non-extracurricular activities at work. And women coworkers are much more likely than their male coworkers to invest in those kinds of activities. And I think, you know, we can look at it and say, okay, that's not great that women are doing all this unpaid labor, but on the other side, they're reaping some social benefits out of that, too.

"The second thing just mentioned quickly is the, you know, talking of like masculinity and, you know, this idea of quote-unquote toxic masculinity and how that can limit the men's ability to sort of form close connections. I think there's something to this, although it's not the entire story. You know, from an early age, women are socialized to be sort of more nurturing and relationship oriented. And men are taught to perceive intimacy with other men as, you know, effeminate or weak and or maybe to view it as necessary on average.

"So, you know, compared to women, what we saw in our poll is that men feel less comfortable sharing their feelings or being vulnerable or seeking emotional support from their friends. But if this was the primary driver, then younger men who tend to be far more likely to reject traditional notions of masculinity, should be doing better than their fathers and grandfathers. But that's not the case. They're actually doing worse. It's young men who seem to be struggling the most when it comes to developing, enduring social bonds."

On connection as the foundation for social progress

Dr. Marisa Franco: "I do think social progress won't happen without it being on the backbone of human connection. I think that there's other things that also have to happen for social progress, but connection has to be part of the foundation. And this is apparent from research that finds that when you are friends with someone from a different group than your own, you become more likely to support policies that benefit that group.

"And not only that, your friends that don't necessarily know this other friend that you have from a different group are also more likely to support policies that benefit that group. So this research sort of suggests that in some ways our political decisions are very emotional and they're tied to our emotional experiences of other people that then determine intellectually how we forage through political information and determine what our views are. And so forming an emotional connection, I think, facilitates openness to being a supporter of causes that don't necessarily personally benefit you, but in some ways can almost feel like they're benefiting you.

"Because when we get close to people, there's this theory called inclusion of others in the self that we begin to include them in our sense of self. So what hurts them hurts us, but benefits them, benefits us. And we see this at the neural level, right? Like our brains empathize with our friends, like they would empathize with something happening to us. And so that's part of the reason why, you know, when we become friends with people, we're more likely to invest in policies that are going to benefit them, thus creating more of a foundation for the progressiveness of a society."

What would you say needs to be done both by individuals and communities to increase time we're spending with our friends?

Daniel Cox: "We can start earlier, and modeling is right. So I wrote not too long ago about how Generation Z is actually uniquely lonely if you look at their formative experiences. So how they were raised, how they spent their time compared to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, Gen Z reports being far more lonely during their childhood years. And I think a lot of that has to do with how they're being raised and what they're being told to value.

"So they're being told value, distinctiveness and achievement. And now they're, by any measure, an incredibly impressive generation. They're more likely to avoid drug use, and they have low rates of teen pregnancy, more years of formal education and all these kinds of metrics that we're like, oh, yeah, they're very impressive, but they're also really lonely. And I think part of that, you know, particularly among middle class, upper middle-class families, is they're spending so much time at, you know, extracurricular activities, whether it's, you know, art or sports.

"You know, we heard earlier in the program the father saying, well, instead of hanging out with friends, I'm going to go to soccer, take my kids to soccer practice. And that's kind of the orientation we're giving. And, you know, if you look at the trends, young people growing up today are spending far less time sort of roaming the neighborhood that I did, you know, with my brothers on bikes growing up, and more in structured activities.

"And I think we need to think not just about academic and intellectual development, but social development as well and how best to really encourage that. And I think some of it has to do with just giving kids more free time to sort of develop, nurture friendships in their own way."

Listen: Songs about friendship

Related Reading

American Survey Center: "The State of American Friendship: Change, Challenges, and Loss" — "Coming out of a once-in-a-generation global pandemic, Americans appear more attuned than ever to the importance of friendship."

VOX: "The radical political power of friendship" — "Imagine it: New York City. The 1950s. An apartment building on Riverside Drive. Even before you reach the door, you can hear the buzzing, a clamoring hum punctuated by laughter. Inside, a dozen people sit in the living room, palming tumblers and martini glasses, alternating sips with a drag off their cigarettes."

This program aired on December 20, 2022.

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