Seattle Times  [Printer-friendly version]
June 23, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when
they said they had only three close friends, today say they have just

By Ely Portillo, Knight Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- Americans, who shocked pollsters in 1985 when they said
they had only three close friends, today say they have just two. And
the number who say they have no one to discuss important matters with
has doubled to 1 in 4, according to a nationwide survey released

It found that men and women of every race, age and education level
reported fewer intimate friends than the same survey turned up in
1985. Their remaining confidants were more likely to be members of
their nuclear family than in 1985, according to the study, but
intimacy within families was down, too. The findings are reported in
the June issue of the American Sociological Review.

Weakening bonds of friendship, which other studies affirm, have far-
reaching effects. Among them: fewer people to turn to for help in
crises such as Hurricane Katrina, fewer watchdogs to deter
neighborhood crime, fewer visitors for hospital patients and fewer
participants in community groups. The decline, which was greatest in
estimates of the number of friends outside the family, also puts added
pressure on spouses, families and counselors.

"People are isolated in their own families," said Laurie Thorner, a
therapist in Annapolis, Md., since the 1980s. "I definitely agree that
there's less support for people."

Study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, a sociologist at Duke University in
Durham, N.C., called the sharp declines startling, and added, "You
don't usually expect major features of social life to change very much
from year to year or even decade to decade."

One explanation for friendship's decline is that adults are working
longer hours and socializing less. That includes women, who when
homemakers tended to have strong community networks. In addition,
commutes are longer, and TV viewing and computer use are up. Another
factor, Smith-Lovin acknowledged, may have been confusion among some
of those polled on how to count e-mail friendships.

Smith-Lovin speculated that social isolation may have made Hurricane
Katrina worse. "The people we saw sitting on roofs after Katrina hit
were probably people without close ties to someone with a car to get
them out," she said.

She's right, said Bob Howard, spokesman for the American Red Cross'
Hurricane Relief Project. "People that had friends and family were
probably most likely to evacuate," he said.

Robert Putnam, the author of "Bowling Alone," the 2000 best-seller on
declining U.S. civic life, said his more recent research generally
tracked the findings of Smith-Lovin and Miller McPherson, a
sociologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

"We would actually think that the trends have leveled off a little
bit" since 2000, but not reversed, said Putnam, who teaches public
policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

People pay a price when bonds of friendship weaken, he continued.
"Communities that have tighter social networks have lower crime and
lower mortality and less corruption and more effective government and
less tax evasion."

The Duke-Arizona team's findings are based on questions they added to
one of the nation's classic attitude polls, the General Social Survey,
which the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has
conducted every two years since 1972.

In the face-to-face survey, 1,467 people -- a nationally
sample -- were asked to count and describe all the people with whom
they had discussed matters important to them in the previous six

The question asked in 2004 was the same as that asked in 1985,
although the term "discussed" may have led some recent respondents to
omit friendships sustained by e-mail, Smith-Lovin said.

"But if you need someone to pick up your kid from the day-care center
because you're stuck at work, you can't e-mail someone in New York,"
she said.

Copyright 2006 The Seattle Times Company