Americans are overdoing ‘alone time’

Molly Gamble (Twitter)

Americans spend far less time face-to-face today than they did 20 years ago, reaching a new low for “social fitness” that spills over to other dimensions of health and wellbeing.

“In short, there is no statistical record of any other period in U.S. history when people have spent more time on their own,” Derek Thompson wrote for his widely circulated Feb. 14 piece “Why Americans Suddenly Stopped Hanging Out” in The Atlantic.

The average hours of face-to-face socializing fell by 30 percent for American men, 35 percent for single adults and 45 percent for teenagers from 2003 to 2022, according to data cited in his reporting from the American Time Use Survey. The largest declines recorded are among young people, poor people and Black Americans.

Americans’ growing introversion or isolation is often described as loneliness, a cause that healthcare leaders are increasingly paying attention to, particularly as behavioral health demands on U.S. healthcare companies intensify. But Mr. Thompson introduces another way to think about this trend: social fitness. Like physical fitness, it implies relationships are determinants of health and unsociability isn’t something that simply happens to us — it is also a measure of health we prioritize or neglect.

What contributes to the big 20-year decline in hanging out? Americans are opting for more face time with screens and less with people, for one. People are also picking pets over friends. The average time that Americans spend with pets has roughly doubled since 2003, both because of increased pet ownership and more time spent with them. People in their 30s and 40s have less leisure time than they did two decades ago, and shared spaces are undergoing a “ritual recession,” with fewer community-based routines and more entertainment options for people to experience alone.

Public health experts link modern phenomena to the surge in obesity, and Mr. Thompson posits that a similar framework works for social fitness. “We come into this world craving the presence of others,” he writes. “But a few modern trends — a sprawling-built environment, the decline of church, social mobility that moves people away from friends and family — spread us out as adults in a way that invites disconnection.”

Add smartphones, screens, catastrophic and spectacular digital content, and it’s the perfect storm. “The sum result of these trends is that we are both pushed and pulled toward a level of aloneness for which we are dysevolved and emotionally unprepared,” Mr. Thompson notes.

The consequences of poor social fitness can be considered public health issues, with the largest being the mental health distress experienced by today’s children and young adults. Rates of teen anxiety and depression are correlated to social media and smartphone use, even down to when phones got front-facing cameras. Last week, New York City’s public health system joined a lawsuit against TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube, alleging they have created a youth mental health crisis and seeking to recover related public health costs.

Poor social fitness can also be linked to a surge in rudeness, a phenomenon that has come home to affect healthcare settings in recent years and is considered a care quality issue.

Mr. Thompson said he believes every social crisis in the U.S. could be helped, somewhat, if people spent a little more time with other people and less time with screens and harmful content. Read his piece on social fitness — or its decline — for The Atlantic.