By Amanda BeckMon , Reuters, Jun 26, 8:48 AM ET
Americans are more socially isolated than they were 20 years ago, separated by work, commuting and the single life, researchers reported on Friday.
Nearly a quarter of people surveyed said they had "zero" close friends with whom to discuss personal matters. More than 50 percent named two or fewer confidants, most often immediate family members, the researchers said.
"This is a big social change, and it indicates something that's not good for our society," said Duke University Professor Lynn Smith-Lovin, lead author on the study to be published in the American Sociological Review.
Smith-Lovin's group used data from a national survey of 1,500 American adults that has been ongoing since 1972.
She said it indicated people had a surprising drop in the number of close friends since 1985. At that time, Americans most commonly said they had three close friends whom they had known for a long time, saw often, and with whom they shared a number of interests.
They were almost as likely to name four or five friends, and the relationships often sprang from their neighborhoods or communities.
Ties to a close network of friends create a social safety net that is good for society, and for the individual. Research has linked social support and civic participation to a longer life, Smith-Lovin said.
People were not asked why they had fewer intimate ties, but Smith-Lovin said that part of the cause could be that Americans are working more, marrying later, having fewer children, and commuting longer distances.
The data also show the social isolation trend mirrors other class divides: Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller social networks than white Americans and the highly educated.
That means that in daily life, personal emergencies and national disasters like Hurricane Katrina, those with the fewest resources also have the fewest personal friends to call for advice and assistance.
"It's one thing to know someone and exchange e-mails with them. It's another thing to say, 'Will you give me a ride out of town with all of my possessions and pets? And can I stay with you for a couple or three months?" Smith-Lovin said.
"Worrying about social isolation is not a matter of nostalgia for a warm and cuddly past. Real things are strongly connected with that," added Harvard University Public Policy Professor Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone," a book on the decline of American community.
He suggested flexible work schedules would allow Americans to tend both personal and professional lives.