Despite technological advancement and a growing global community, Americans are reporting a decline in their number of close confidantes, Prof. Matthew Brashears, sociology, says in a recent study published in the American Sociological Review.
Brashears’ study compared the results of a study in 1985 to similarly-collected data in 2010. His results showed that the average “discussion network” — the number of people an individual can discuss “important issues” with — has decreased from three to two people, on average, over the last few decades.
Brashears said his findings, which garnered national media attention, surprised him. He said the results challenge previous conceptions that individual social networks grew with the advent of online social networking.
“We were skeptical of the dramatic change,” Brashears said.
He said that increased connectivity online does not translate into an increase in the number of close confidantes.
“In the Internet age, you can be friends on Facebook, but you’re not really friends unless you interact,” Brashears said. “[The Internet] doesn’t increase the number of close associates.”
While Brashears has not conducted a study as to determine the cause of the decline, he speculated that people are more discerning about their closest confidantes than in 1985.
Prof. Keith Hampton, communication, University of Pennsylvania, worked with the Pew Research Center and obtained similar results. He predicted that increasing economic prosperity may cause declines in close social ties.
“It’s surprising in general to see such large-scale social change,” Hampton said.
In his research, Hampton studied social networks in other countries and found that development and implementation of social institutions diminish the dependency on a social network.
Brashears said he does not believe shrinking social networks are a dire problem. In fact, he said, his findings indicate a historical trend toward smaller and less diverse social networks.
“It’s not the decline of Western civilization,” Brashears said. “There is no reason to freak out.”
Still, smaller social networks make people more vulnerable to upheaval, “because networks are getting smaller, any disruption can strip support,” Brashears added.
In addition to his findings about declining network size, Brashears discovered that American social networks are not necessarily increasing in diversity, even though Americans can now interact with people abroad via technology.
“There is no reason to contact a random person, unless you are brought together by a common interest,” he said.
With this in mind, he said networks tend to be homogeneous by interest yet more diverse in terms of geography.
“You trade one for the other,” he said.
Brashears’ most recent study, titled “Small networks and high isolation? A reexamination of American discussion networks,” reaffirmed similar results from a study conducted by Brashears and Prof. Miller McPherson, sociology, Duke University and University of Arizona, and Prof. Lynn Smith-Lovin, sociology, Duke University, in 2006.
The original 2006 study was contested in a letter to the American Sociological Review by Prof. Claude Fischer, sociology, U.C. Berkeley, who claimed an error inspired the results. Brashears conducted the 2010 study to refute Fischer’s claims.
“To really settle things, you need new data because it is almost impossible to prove,” Brashears said.