June 23, 2006 — -- 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.
However, not everyone feels a lack of social interaction at work. Jeffrey Johnson, a Northeastern University grad student in his early 20s, says that he receives a good amount of social connections at his internship at a storage management company.
"Usually when you work in a big company, the general notion is that you are always working and do not have time off," Johnson says. However, interactions through company ice cream socials and weekly gatherings allow employees to connect on a greater level outside of work.
While few could argue that having a decreased amount of close friends is a good thing, there is some debate about the Duke findings.
Friday, the Pittsburgh psychologist, warned that people should "not take an isolated study and use it as the academically rationalizing gun to shoot down the idea that we're an effective society."
Culture has shifted a great deal from 1985 into the 21st century, he said, explaining that technology has greatly advanced because of e-mail and instant messaging. He said these things helped our society by allowing us to reach out and communicate with each other.
Johnson, for example, states that Orkut, an international online community that serves as a friends network similar to MySpace, is a great resource for people to become further connected.
"I have made some great friends through this network," he says.
Smith-Lovin and her colleagues are planning to re-interview the participants of the study in August, which marks two years since the 2004 study.