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.