Kids These Days Have Fewer Friends, But They’re Cool With That

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Claire Danes played Angela Chase, a 15-year-old who wanted to break out of the mold as a strait-laced teen-ager and straight-A student.
Photo: Mark Seliger/ABC

Teenagers today have smaller social networks than kids did in the early 1990s, but they also report less loneliness than high school students surveyed back then, according to a new report published online today in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin

One study in the paper used data from 1991 to 2012 via the Monitoring the Future Project, which surveys about 50,000 8th- and 10th-grade students from more than 400 public and private schools annually, yielding a nationally representative sample. Here’s what the data revealed, according to the press release:

White high school students reported lower loneliness than Black students, Hispanic students or other races. The study also found that subjective isolation declined, but social network isolation increased, which suggests that high school students perceive less loneliness but poorer social networks. High school students reported fewer friends with whom to interact, but less desire for more friends. 

So students in 2012 felt less lonely than their early 1990s counterparts, even though their social networks were comparatively smaller. This finding is somewhat surprising; you’d think that social media and such would allow teens to have more friends, but weaker connections with those friends, which would mean more loneliness. But this study seems to have found the opposite, suggesting that modern teenagers may have closer friendships with fewer people than they did in decades past.

The study didn’t look at reasons why this shift in size of social networks and perception of loneliness might be happening, but lead author David Clark says this finding is in line with broader modernization trends. “People become less dependent on their families and need more specialized skills, which could lead to less interest in social support and more self-sufficiency,” he said in the press release. “Over time, people are more individualistic, more extroverted, and have higher self-esteem.” In other words: The kids are all right, as they say.