Sunday, June 25, 2006

Social Isolation

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My last post on this article by Shankar Vendantem in the Washington Post online was rather cheeky. I wanted to get the article out there for you to read because it seems timely. We've all heard the saying "it's lonely at the top". Well, it can be lonely in the middle and bottom, too.

Here's what the article says (bolded emphasis mine):

Americans are far more socially isolated today than they were two decades ago, and a sharply growing number of people say they have no one in whom they can confide, according to a comprehensive new evaluation of the decline of social ties in the United States.

A quarter of Americans say they have no one with whom they can discuss personal troubles, more than double the number who were similarly isolated in 1985. Overall, the number of people Americans have in their closest circle of confidants has dropped from around three to about two.

The comprehensive new study paints a sobering picture of an increasingly fragmented America, where intimate social ties -- once seen as an integral part of daily life and associated with a host of psychological and civic benefits -- are shrinking or nonexistent. In bad times, far more people appear to suffer alone.

"That image of people on roofs after Katrina resonates with me, because those people did not know someone with a car," said Lynn Smith-Lovin, a Duke University sociologist who helped conduct the study. "There really is less of a safety net of close friends and confidants."

If close social relationships support people in the same way that beams hold up buildings, more and more Americans appear to be dependent on a single beam.

Compared with 1985, nearly 50 percent more people in 2004 reported that their spouse is the only person they can confide in. But if people face trouble in that relationship, or if a spouse falls sick, that means these people have no one to turn to for help, Smith-Lovin said.

"We know these close ties are what people depend on in bad times," she said. "We're not saying people are completely isolated. They may have 600 friends on Facebook.com [a popular networking Web site] and e-mail 25 people a day, but they are not discussing matters that are personally important."

The new research is based on a high-quality random survey of nearly 1,500 Americans. Telephone surveys miss people who are not home, but the General Social Survey, funded by the National Science Foundation, has a high response rate and conducts detailed face-to-face interviews, in which respondents are pressed to confirm they mean what they say.

Whereas nearly three-quarters of people in 1985 reported they had a friend in whom they could confide, only half in 2004 said they could count on such support. The number of people who said they counted a neighbor as a confidant dropped by more than half, from about 19 percent to about 8 percent.

The results, being published today in the American Sociological Review, took researchers by surprise because they had not expected to see such a steep decline in close social ties.

Smith-Lovin said increased professional responsibilities, including working two or more jobs to make ends meet, and long commutes leave many people too exhausted to seek social -- as well as family -- connections: "Maybe sitting around watching 'Desperate Housewives' . . . is what counts for family interaction."

Robert D. Putnam, a professor of public policy at Harvard and the author of "Bowling Alone," a book about increasing social isolation in the United States, said the new study supports what he has been saying for years to skeptical audiences in the academy.

"For most of the 20th century, Americans were becoming more connected with family and friends, and there was more giving of blood and money, and all of those trend lines turn sharply in the middle '60s and have gone in the other direction ever since," he said.

Americans go on 60 percent fewer picnics today and families eat dinner together 40 percent less often compared with 1965, he said. They are less likely to meet at clubs or go bowling in groups. Putnam has estimated that every 10-minute increase in commutes makes it 10 percent less likely that people will establish and maintain close social ties.Television is a big part of the problem, he contends. Whereas 5 percent of U.S. households in 1950 owned television sets, 95 percent did a decade later.

But University of Toronto sociologist Barry Wellman questioned whether the study's focus on intimate ties means that social ties in general are fraying. He said people's overall ties are actually growing, compared with previous decades, thanks in part to the Internet. Wellman has calculated that the average person today has about 250 ties with friends and relatives.

Wellman praised the quality of the new study and said its results are surprising, but he said it does not address how core ties change in the context of other relationships."I don't see this as the end of the world but part of a larger puzzle," he said. "My guess is people only have so much energy, and right now they are switching around a number of networks. . . . We are getting a division of labor in relationships. Some people give emotional aid, some people give financial aid."Putnam and Smith-Lovin said Americans may be well advised to consciously build more relationships. But they also said social institutions and social-policy makers need to pay more attention.

"The current structure of workplace regulations assumes everyone works from 9 to 5, five days a week," Putnam said. "If we gave people much more flexibility in their work life, they would use that time to spend more time with their aging mom or best friend."


There seem to be a few causes of isolation: 1) simple lack of social skills 2) don't want to take the time 3) distrustful; fear of being betrayed 4) enjoy being alone. There are probably more.

Our local paper wrote recently about the decline in (totally awesome) public pool use. National statistics show that people aren't going to theatres like they have in the past. A 10% decline seems significant to me. And it isn't just because movies stink. In addition, in Houston anyway, people are eating out a lot more.

Part of the turning inward may just be wealth. People can swim in their own clean pool, watch a movie in their own media room with fresh popcorn and at a fraction of the price. It doesn't take much dough to add up to a nice projector when taking the family out to dinner and a movie approaches $200. Pools cost significantly more, of course, but they can be used more often, too.

So, families who are double-income or single-income but dad or mom is mega busy, prefer to stay home to relax. They're not home much. They prefer to not have to shop and cook after a long week and hit a restaurant on the fly. But these choices comes at a price--less social interaction.

If people don't belong to a church. If they aren't part of a service organization. If their only social interaction consists of extended family obligations. If they watch TV, blog (ahem), enjoy movies, swim in the backyard, or just stay home when they aren't working 60 hour weeks, when, pray tell, will they make friends and how will they keep the friendships they already have?

Dr. Helen wonders:
Is this study even correct--do people really stay away from others because they are so exhausted from work and long commutes, or is Desperate Housewives just more entertaining than exchanging verbal pleasantries with the neighbors?
I would like to think the answer is no. But in this day and age, people probably prefer pretend flawed people to real flawed people. Like a dog, the TV requires no investnment besides sitting on your ass. Actually, a dog requires more--you should at least give the pooch a pat every once in a while, but even that is too much effort even though the rewards are ten-fold for your health and humanity.

2 comments:

vj said...

Since your last post on this subject, I've been thinking a lot about this phenomenon of isolation.
It would interest me a great deal to know if studies have been done on who might be in greater danger of this - men or women.
Perhaps if you ever read something on this you could post it as well.
vj

Anonymous said...

The June issue of the Oprah magazine has an article on lonliness that may interest you