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Is Your Circle of Friends Shrinking?

How many people are you really close to? Chances are it's not as many as you might have been 20 years ago.

A new survey shows that most people's circle of confidants is on average about one person smaller now. The percentage of people who say they have no one to confide in has reached about 25%.

Dwindling Discussion Network

Sociologists call this circle your "discussion network" — people you reach out to for help, advice, or just as a sounding board. In the new research, they say the network is important because it shapes "the kinds of people we become."

The new conclusions come from the General Social Survey, which has been conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago since 1972. Researchers looked at results from 1985 and 2004.

Duke University and University of Arizona sociologists found the average number of people who are considered close confidants dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004. They call this drop dramatic.

"We were surprised to see such a large change," says Miller McPherson, Ph.D., research professor of sociology at Duke and professor of sociology at the University of Arizona.

In a news release, McPherson says the researchers are even a bit skeptical about the results. Regardless, he says they are "confident there is a trend toward smaller, closer social networks more centered on spouses and partners."

"Not Good For Society"

Their report says there was a drop in both the number of confidants who are friends and the number of confidants who are family members. But the drop-off was greatest in the number of confidants who are friends; people are relying more on the nuclear family.

People have fewer contacts through clubs, neighbors, and organizations outside the home, the report says.

Is that so wrong?

"This change indicates something that's not good for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action," Duke's Lynn Smith-Lovin, Ph.D., says in the news release.

Blame The Internet?

While the survey didn't determine why there's been such a change in our discussion networks, the researchers have a few ideas.

They speculate the increase in the number of hours people work keeps them from interacting with their community.

The growth of the Internet as a communication tool also may be to blame. While the Internet might keep us connected to friends, family and neighbors, it also may diminish the need for us to actually see each other to make closer connections, the researchers say.

They also say the way survey participants answered the questions in 1985 and 2004 might be different, the researchers say. These days, people might not consider instant messaging or e-mail true "discussion."

And what people deem as "important" issues to discuss with others may have shifted in the wake of major events like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. "People might now think that they have nothing important to say," the researchers say.

SOURCE: McPherson, M. American Sociological Review, June 2006. News release from the American Sociological Association.

By Lisa Habib
Reviewed by Louse Chang M.D.
© 2006, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved

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