Last month, The Washington Post ran an opinion essay titled “Americans are choosing to be alone. Here’s why we should reverse that.” In it, the economist Bryce Ward writes that in-person time with friends has fallen precipitously across demographic groups since 2013. Ward argues that this was happening long before the pandemic sent us all indoors, and “social media, political polarization and new technologies all played a role in the drop.” He adds that “It is too soon to know the long-term consequences of this shift, but it seems safe to assume that the decline of our social lives is a worrisome development.” In a tweet nodding to Ward’s essay, The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson called the increase in alone time “a core reason for America’s surge of anxiety and depression.”
There’s a lot going on here — and I’m not quite ready to peg so many of our modern problems to spending more time alone.
I was alone when I read Ward’s piece, horizontal in bed after a long day, and it occurred to me that he might be misdiagnosing some of the reasons people appear to be spending more time alone, possibly underestimating the strength of virtual connections. I’m not convinced this shift itself is worrisome, at least not yet.
On the first point, perhaps Americans are spending less time with friends because we’re simply exhausted. At the end of a random Tuesday, I want to be in my soft pants watching old episodes of “Snapped.” I don’t want to get dressed, leave my house, sit upright or have an in-depth conversation — really nothing to do with political polarization.
My age group — elder millennials — has less leisure time than 35-to-44-year-olds did two decades ago, writes Justin Fox at Bloomberg. He analyzed historical data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and found that Americans ages 35 to 44 have lost 16 minutes of leisure time a day since 2003, which may not seem like a lot until you realize that adds up to almost 100 hours a year. The time is going to both longer work hours and longer caregiving hours, Fox says — we’re really pressed for time, he argues, “so be kind to your local 35-to-44-year-olds.”
But it’s not just elder millennials working long hours; Americans work longer than average among O.E.C.D. nations, according to the most recent data. Broadly, we don’t have federally mandated paid leave, paid sick days or paid vacation days; the United States is a stingy outlier on these policies.
On the second point, I don’t think being alone necessarily means you’re not connecting with friends, and perhaps people are spending less time with pals in person because they’re getting some of the support they need through virtual connection: Like many young (ish) Americans, as I watch those episodes of “Snapped,” I’m texting and D.M.ing with friends across the country and in Canada, sending memes, comparing notes from the day and sharing cute photos and stories about my kids.
Malinda Desjarlais, an associate professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary who researches social media and friendship, told me that early on in the social media era there was more of a difference between online and offline interaction. But now we have “washed away that digital divide between the virtual world and the real world. That’s how the youth are living — it’s all connected.”
Desjarlais’s research has shown that sharing intimate information through “socially interactive technologies” (such as instant messaging) enhances friendship quality in person, too. Which is to say: When we’re alone, we’re not necessarily just passively scrolling through the internet or staring at a blank wall, we may be strengthening our social ties.
As Alice Marwick, an associate professor and a principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, put it to me: “Our relationships don’t stay confined to the internet or not on the internet, our relationships happen everywhere all at once.”
She described chatting throughout the day with her husband via different mediums — Twitter D.M., text and, of course, in person. Marwick also talked about a group of friends she reconnected with after a recent college reunion. They now have an ongoing group chat. “It’s been an incredibly valuable way for me to feel close to them again, and to keep up with those relationships where they left off,” she told me.
I agree with Ward that we should be making an effort to see friends and family around the holidays, and I do think we should be concerned about any evidence of increased loneliness in society. I’m not arguing that the rapid rise in alone time is necessarily a boon for everyone. Though it’s important to point out that more alone time doesn’t automatically mean people are more lonely.
Still, I’d love to have more energy to do, well, anything in the evening hours. I do think more people are genuinely lonelier and more anxious now than they were in 2020, but I would argue that’s because they were living through an isolating, frightening and potentially deadly virus and its attendant economic and caregiving impacts.
Instead of simply suggesting that we all get out and socialize more, or defaulting to skepticism of technology, which has become a convenient patsy, I would say we should ask why people are spending more time alone, and whether that time alone is making them content. In the meantime, I have some texts from my friends to return.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
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