Teens felt less lonely but had fewer friends to rely on in 2012 than they did two decades earlier, suggesting they may be less community-minded and more individualistic, according to research published this month in the print edition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Researchers scoured a survey given to 285,153 U.S. students in Grades 8, 10 and 12 between 1991 and 2012. The students were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, "I often wish I had more good friends" and "A lot of the times I feel lonely." Even as the students perceived less loneliness in their lives than students had 20 years prior, they simultaneously reported poorer social networks. In 2012, students were less likely to say, "I usually have a few friends around I can get together with" and "There is always someone I can turn to if I need help" than they were in 1991. Meaning that even as they reported feeling less isolated and less left out, the teenagers' actual "social network isolation" had become amplified.
How can you feel less lonely as your social networks thin out? The researchers argue that larger-scale cultural trends including self-sufficiency may be at play, with people feeling that they don't need to rely on others as heavily any more – or that they shouldn't.
"Greater economic opportunities offer individuals more latitude to manage their own money, decide whom to date and decide whom to marry, reducing the influence of kin and giving people more autonomy, which may increase individualism," wrote the study authors from the University of Queensland, Brisbane, in Australia. "Economic changes lead to increased individuality, which could lead to decreasing interest in friends, increasing self-reliance, increasing self-esteem and decreasing loneliness."
Lead researcher and PhD candidate David Clark argues that "modern society provides many situations where you need to work or study alone," more so than in eras past.
"Historically people had to rely on others more," Clark said in an e-mail. "Modern times may foster independence. If you are in a situation where you need help from friends if you get sick, you may feel that you need a number of close friends. But if you are economically well off, you may need less practical support and you may be satisfied with less friends."
Indeed, a troubling point in the research was that the teens of 2012 said they desired new friends less than their counterparts had back in the grunge era. "High school students reported fewer friends with whom to interact over time but … suggested less desire for more friends over time," they wrote.
Citing older research, the authors argued that social engagement is declining: People "are less likely to join clubs, have fewer confidants and are less likely to perceive others as trustworthy." Greater emphasis is now placed on personal success; the importance of self-esteem and being an extrovert have increased while empathy has decreased.
"The decline in empathy fits with the decline in interest in friends and a more individualistic focus," Clark said. "My guess is that students are gaining belonging outside of direct friendships. Students could feel belonging from being a valued member of a sports team or getting good grades and praise from teachers."
Still, Clark sees some positives in the research and the general declines in loneliness over time as heartening.
"They may have greater quality friendships. They may have less need for [more] friends," he said. "Belonging is one of the strongest human motivations. This research is some good news on this front."