Social Isolation: Americans Have Fewer Close Confidantes

Debbie Elliott speaks with sociology professor Lynn Smith-Lovin of Duke University about a new survey documenting what seems to be Americans' growing social isolation. Back in 1985, respondents reported, on average, that they had three people in their lives who were close confidantes. They now report having two people with whom they can discuss important personal topics.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Your child gets the flu, but you've got to get to a job interview. You've just gone through a breakup and you need someone to talk to. Who do you turn to, a friend? Maybe not. According to a new study from Duke University, Americans have fewer close friends than they did two decades ago.

In a 1985 survey, respondents reported on average having three people they could talk to about important issues. Today that number is two. What's more, one-quarter of those surveyed this year said they had no one at all to confide in. Lynn Smith-Lovin is one of the study's authors and a professor of sociology at Duke. She found the results surprising.

Professor LYNN SMITH-LOVIN (Duke University): We don't usually see big social changes like this over a 10 or 20 year period. Most features of people's lives are fairly stable from year to year. And so when we see a drop from three confidantes to two confidantes, that's a big change.

ELLIOTT: Friendship seems like it would be an unwieldy thing to study. How do you measure?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: We measured who you felt comfortable discussing things that were personally important to you with. So the question literally asked: in the last six months you may have discussed matters that were important to you with other people, and then we asked a number of questions about that person's characteristics.

ELLIOTT: Well, what's going on here? Why is it that Americans seem to be retreating from one another?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: Our study didn't speak specifically to why this is happening, but based on other literature we think it's changes in the way that we live. Things like the average American family is spending many more hours in the paid labor force now than they did 20 years ago. Partially as a function of women going to work, people are living in a more dispersed geographic way, more in suburbs and exurbs with longer commutes. We have smaller families as parents and siblings are dying off and we have - marry later and have fewer children.

ELLIOTT: What about the things we do now? You know, people didn't have the Internet that we know it today. In 1985 everybody wasn't on surfing the Web so much. Are any of these explanations for why people aren't making more human contact?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: We didn't find that using the Internet or email or the Web a lot influenced whether or not you had more or fewer close ties.

ELLIOTT: Is this happening only in certain socioeconomic groups? Or is this across the board?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: One of the things that we though was very important is that friends and family that they can call on for this kind of social support are resources that are distributed a lot like the other resources in our society. That is, the people who are well educated, who are white, who are well off, tend to have more of these resources than people who are poorly educated, who are from a minority racial or ethnic group.

ELLIOTT: Now, your findings did show that even though social circles are narrowing, they've become more diverse.

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: They've become more racially diverse. That's almost certainly a function of the fact that our society has become much more racially diverse. It's become less diverse in terms of educational levels. That too is probably a societal level phenomenon as parents and older kin that used to have less education are probably dying off and the overall educational stock of the society is becoming much greater.

ELLIOTT: Now what about differences in, say, regions?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: The West and the upper Midwest seem to be well networked, and some areas seem to be very socially isolated, in particular the - what we would call the West South Central area that includes Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. The percentage of people that said that they talked to no one about matters that were important to them is actually 43% in that area, as opposed to just 12% in the upper Midwest.

ELLIOTT: Any explanations for that?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: Partially the upper Midwest, the Dakotas and Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas, it's a function of what kind of people are there. They're mostly white, older, well-educated people, relative to the rest of the country, but some of these big regional differences hold up even when we control for that kind of demographic factor. And so we aren't exactly sure.

ELLIOTT: Why is it important to have friends?

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: Friends and close confidantes like this make up a sort of safety net with things like picking up a child from daycare or watching our house when we're out of town or something like that. Those people that we saw sitting on the roof after Katrina were people who didn't have a close tie outside of the area, somebody who could help them with a car or something that they could stay with for two or three weeks, or two or three months, as it turned out. And it's important for society as a whole because these kinds of close connections that we have to people determine whether we get involved in different organizations and activities, sometimes whether we become politically active and can coalesce to work on some neighborhood or national problem.

ELLIOTT: Lynn Smith-Lovin is a professor of sociology at Duke University. She and her colleague, Miller McPherson, have published a study in the June edition of the American Sociological Review. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SMITH-LOVIN: Thank you.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.