Wanted: A best friend. Or two.
Americans' circle of close confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades, and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled to hit 25 percent, according to a new study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona that is based on the first nationally representative survey on this topic in nearly 20 years.
When we need to confide in someone, we overwhelmingly choose a family member rather than a friend, a distinct shift from recent years. "This change indicates something that's not good for our society," said Duke's Lynn Smith-Lovin, one of the study's authors. "Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action."
The study, which was based on the General Social Survey, one of the nation's longest running surveys of social, cultural and political issues, compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found the following:
The study paints a picture of Americans' social contacts as a "densely connected, close, homogeneous set of ties slowly closing in on itself, becoming smaller, more tightly interconnected, more focused on the very strong bonds of the nuclear family," the authors write. That means fewer contacts are being created through clubs, neighborhoods and organizations outside the home--a phenomenon popularly known as "bowling alone," from the 2000 book of the same title by Robert D. Putnam.
- The mean number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.
- The number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent.
- The percentage of people who talk only to family members about important matters increased from about 57 percent to about 80 percent.
- The number of people who depend totally on their spouse has increased from about 5 percent to about 9 percent.
- Both family and non-family confidants dropped, with the loss greatest in non-family connections.
- Non-whites and people with less education tend to have smaller networks than white Americans and the highly educated.
- Racial diversity among people's networks has increased. The percentage of people who count at least one person of another race in their close network has gone up from about 9 percent to more than 15 percent.
The researchers speculated that changes in communities and families, such as the increase in the number of hours that family members spend at work and the influence of Internet communication, may be contributing to the decrease in the size of close-knit circles of friends and relatives.
The study was published in the American Sociological Review.