Commentary

Despite Social Media, Americans Are Less Social Than Ever

Don-Quixote-Widmill

Being critical of social media, nowadays, is like shouting "stop" at a speeding freight train: Don't expect to make much of an impression. The same is true for observations about modern society in general, where trends emerge and unfold on such a huge scale that all the individual can do is take note of them (and maybe cynically cash in, if blessed with an entrepreneurial bent).

But I am all about being quixotic. Just show me the windmill and I'll tilt, baby, I'll tilt! And with Thanksgiving approaching, I thought I'd take a look at the bigger "social" implications of social media.

One of the most interesting things about the rise social media, in my opinion, is the fact that it seems to be substituting for or replacing real, face-to-face social interaction -- and in that sense it might be more properly called "antisocial" or at least "less social" media. But it's not really social media's fault, as this is merely the continuation of a long-term trend stretching back half a century.

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According to a number of time use surveys by academics and the U.S. government over the years, the average time spent socializing as part of non-work leisure time by U.S. adults ages 18-64 has fallen more than half over the last five decades, from 85 minutes per day in 1965 to 57 minutes in 1985, 45 minutes in 2005, and 42 minutes per day in 2009.

It wouldn't be hard to come up with speculative explanations for this decrease based on geographic, economic, and psychological factors. From 1960-2010 the proportion of Americans living in suburbs increased from 30% to over 50%; while suburbs aren't inherently antisocial, the advent of gated communities planned entirely around automobile transportation may be less conducive to neighborly socializing. At the same time gender roles changed, with the labor participation rate of women rising from 38% in 1960 to 60% currently, leaving female workers less time to socialize. Meanwhile the average U.S. family has become smaller and more geographically dispersed.

This sympathetic portrayal of Americans on the go provides might seem to support social media evangelists who argue that online social networks serve a kind of stopgap role, allowing busy people to stay in touch with each other despite increasingly hectic schedules.

But unfortunately it just ain't so: it turns out total leisure time has actually increased over the same period, longer commutes and women's growing workforce participation notwithstanding, with the total average leisure time enjoyed by U.S. adults actually increasing 19% from 264 minutes per day in 1965 to 315 minutes per day in 2009. Crunching the numbers, in proportional terms the amount of leisure time Americans spent in face-to-face socializing fell from 32% in 1965 to 13% in 2009.

What this suggests to me is that people could easily be socializing more... but they just don't want to. It can't be a coincidence that with more leisure time of their hands, Americans are spending more of it alone. For one thing, everyone is watching more TV -- a lot more TV: as I've noted in previous columns, according to Nielsen, the average time TVs were on in American households increased from 4.6 hours per day in 1950, to 5.9 hours in 1970, 6.6 hours in 1980, 7.1 hours in 1990, 7.6 hours in 2000, and 8.2 hours in 2009.

In this context, the increasing amount of time spent on social media makes it seem less like a stopgap measure facilitating social activity despite time constraints, and more like yet another distraction from true face-to-face socializing. In this regard it is especially pernicious -- more so than TV -- because it encourages participants to believe they are engaged in a "social" world which is actually mostly a construction of their own minds: glancing at someone's Facebook updates is not the same as talking to them in person, or even chatting with them online, but I can imagine people using these quick snippets to justify devoting less time to true social contact. Sort of like the social equivalent of "empty calories."

6 comments about "Despite Social Media, Americans Are Less Social Than Ever".
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  1. Jamie Dunham from Jamie Dunham | Brand Solutions, November 22, 2010 at 7:39 p.m.

    What a great commentary on the spectator society we have become. This is one of those articles that I read and it embodies all of the things I have been thinking. Really interesting stats on TV viewership. The amount of media that we consume continues to grow and is layered by the simultaneous media we consume - surfing the web while we watch television.

  2. Jim Thomas from Frank N. Magid Associates, November 22, 2010 at 9:26 p.m.

    It's not all that shocking about television. Agree with Jamie. People of all ages continue to upgrade their viewing experience at home while using new tools to reach out to others. The technology and common interests are the bonds. The key is to know your audience and produce great content for them.

  3. Ilene Lubell from Lubell Marketing Solutions, November 22, 2010 at 11:09 p.m.

    I agree with this commentary. Although, the evolution of social (or "anti-social) media will continue to grow along side technology, I wonder how well future generations will communicate with one another face to face. And how this will impact our society. On the one hand, we can communicate with strangers around the world with little effort and make connections never before possible. On the other hand, I have witnessed people who talk to one another online via text, email and social media non-stop, meet face to face and have nothing to say to one another. It is also interesting to me that some of the people who created "social" media are not very social people. Still, the concept of social media makes sense. However, it should enhance and not take the place of face to face communications. But face it (pardon the pun), it is much harder to look someone in the eyes and talk to them, than it is to type words on a laptop, phone, or tablet.

  4. Tim Orr from Barnett Orr Marketing Group, Inc., November 23, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.

    The technology has functioned as a shield against real social interaction for some time. Those who "flame" others rarely would do so in person. It reminds me of Cyrano's inability to plight his troth to Roxanne, but his fluency when he speaks through Christian.

  5. Erin Campbell from Cox Digital Solutions, November 23, 2010 at 5:33 p.m.

    This is so interesting, especially those stats. It's interesting that with technology delivering us into the age of information we have so much to weed through and decipher day to day that our increase in leisure time is easier than ever to whittle away and also hard to believe. All the stimuli we are subjected (or choose to subject ourselves to) to daily has lead us to perceive that we have less time though we actually have more! I love that no one has "liked" this on facebook yet...anyone want to be the first?

  6. Susan Breidenbach from Broadbrook Associates, November 27, 2010 at 4:23 p.m.

    The TV numbers are scary, because TV watching has been linked to impaired frontal lobe development in small children (leaving them with poor impulse control for life) and Alzheimer's in older people. Regardless of the content quality, TV turns our brains to mush. Years ago someone was interviewing 5-year-olds, asking them what they would give up before they'd give up TV. Most of them would give up their toys, their friends, their family. NOTHING was more important than TV. Bone-chilling. But with regard to spending time online, engaging in social media and being online are not synonymous. A recent study--sorry, can't find the link--found that people who engage most in social media are more likely than others to meet people face to face and get involved in their brick-and-mortar communities.

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