Friday, June 23, 2006

Americans more socially isolated today, new study shows

New study shows Americans are increasingly isolated sociallyTechnology has utterly transformed our ability to communicate with each other. Linking to each other both literally and figuratively, many of us connect through cellphones, email, instant messaging, blogs, and networking web sites, yet ironically we may be less connected to each other than we think.

According to a study to be published today in the American Sociological Review, Americans are becoming increasingly socially isolated. The study reveals, for example, that one quarter of Americans say that they have no one to discuss important personal issues with, and that the number of close friends that American have has dropped from three to two, according to this report from MSNBC. Meanwhile, the Boston Globe reports that this spreading isolation is experienced more acutely among those with less education, people of color, and older Americans. Unsurprisingly, those who are young, white, and well educated tend to have stronger social networks.

This study seems to vindicate the views of scholars like Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, published in 2000, who have been saying that America's social capital is in serious decline.

From my own experience I have to say that I’ve never felt more connected, thanks to a web of friends, family, and colleagues. One of my closest friends is someone I met through an online discussion group who lives hundreds of miles away from me. We have met face-to-face only twice, yet our regular electronic correspondence and cellphone calls sustain our close friendship. Email keeps me connected with other close friends scattered across the globe, who, incidentally, read my blog as a way to stay in touch (hi, guys!). And, speaking of blogging, my blog has introduced me to people I would never have met otherwise and has led to enduring and important friendships.

On the other hand, I recently saw a scenario unfold that demonstrated to me how deeply disconnected we as Americans have become. I had just wrapped up a presentation on mediation at a family therapy center. As I was leaving, I noticed a mother and her teenage son who had just completed their session with their family therapist. After making their next appointment, they both simultaneously whipped out their cellphones, placed calls, and began loud conversations with whoever was on the other end, both of them ignoring the conspicuously positioned "Please No Cellphones" sign in the reception area. I walked out behind them to the parking lot to my car. They both jumped into their SUV, and, as I saw them drive off, they were still talking on their cellphones.

But, alas, not to each other.