Americans Have Fewer Friends, Researchers Say

Paul Friday's 88-year-old mother frequently talks to her sister via the Internet, a fact that still sometimes surprises him.

"This wouldn't happen 20 years ago," said Friday, chief of clinical psychology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Shadyside.

His mother's online chats highlight a changing trend in society -- Americans' close network of friends and the way they stay in touch.

In general, most people report fewer close friends, according to a new sociological survey, but detractors, like Friday, note that it's hard to say for sure whether Americans actually have fewer friends or just define that term differently than they used to.

The survey, from Duke University, showed that Americans reported a smaller circle of friends in 2004 than in 1985. The number decreased in size by one-third, or about one friend, over about 20 years.

Known as the "General Social Survey," it asked the question "Who have you discussed important matters with?" in 1985 and 2004.

Researchers then analyzed and compared the two sets of data. The number of "close confidants" Americans could confide in decreased; however, spouses and partners were more likely to be mentioned in 2004 than in 1985.

What could cause such a decrease of close confidants among Americans? Some people contribute it to changes in U.S. culture.

"People are working more … living in more dispersed circumstances in the suburbs … and keeping in touch through technological means" more so than in the mid-'80s, said Lynn Smith-Lovin, head author of the study and a Duke sociologist.

Researchers in the Netherlands and Hungary reported the same trend in their citizens over a few years, she said.

These rather swiftly occurring changes mean fewer friends, said Bruce Spring, a psychiatry professor at the University of Southern California.

"The acceleration of [these cultures] and the amount of things that we have available to keep us busy and to distract us interfere with time available for friendships," he said.

Besides potentially making us more lonely, not having as many close confidants can affect both physical and mental health, such as a creating a higher risk for depression and high blood pressure, according to Redford Williams, who directed a study in 1992 on heart patients and their relationships.

He and his colleagues at Duke found that 50 percent of patients with heart disease who did not have a spouse or someone to confide in died within five years, while 18 percent of those who did have a confidant died.

A smaller inner circle among parents also may impact their kids, said Bruce Rabin, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Healthy Lifestyle Program. He said parents needed to demonstrate to their kids the joys of interacting with people.

"We need to be very concerned about the future," Rabin said. "If there is a continued decrease in social interaction, this may affect the quality of mental and physical health of the next generation."

To promote social and physical health, Rabin said he and his colleagues were teaching leaders of an international company to engage in healthy behaviors both at work and at home, including engaging in more social activities with colleagues, such as book clubs where employees could interact outside of work.

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