Much has been written in recent years about how personal electronics and social networking services seem to be isolating us more and more from each other. American adults are lonelier than they used to be, and there's research to suggest that social media use is correlated with feelings of disconnection and dissatisfaction.
Yet among teens -- arguably the most tech-saturated demographic -- feelings of loneliness actually appear to be decreasing, according to research publicized this week at the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Researchers from two Australian schools, Griffith University and the University of Queensland, conducted two sets of data analysis on high school and college students. First, they looked at a small sample of studies on loneliness levels in college students from 1978 through 2009. This research suggested that college students in recent years are less lonely than the college students of past decades.
For the second data set, the researchers examined a large sample of American high school students between 1991 and 2012. The data came from the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future project, a long-running study of the feelings and behaviors of high school students. The researchers looked at MTF data on feelings of loneliness and exclusion among teens, and also assessed factors like social environment, friendships and levels of social support.
The second analysis showed that while today's high school students feel less isolated than their predecessors, their interpersonal social networks are actually not as strong as those of past students. The research suggests that while teenagers might have fewer friends these days, they feel more secure in their friendships and experience less desire to form new ones.
The analysis also found that white students were less lonely than black or Hispanic students, or students of other races.
Despite the popular stereotype of the constantly texting teen who lacks real-life social skills, the Australian researchers' findings suggest that young people may actually be growing more socially adept, perhaps thanks in part to advances in technology.
Lead researcher David Clark suggested that modernization has changed the way people interact with each other, possibly leading us to become more satisfied with smaller social networks.
"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," Clark said in a statement. "Over time, people are more individualistic, more extroverted, and have higher self-esteem."
Clark and his colleagues point to recent cultural shifts like urbanization, increased social emphasis on personal success, freedom arising from greater economic opportunities, and parents placing less emphasis on raising obedient children. All of these trends, the researchers suggest, may result in today's young people feeling a greater sense of individuality than they would have in the past. Individuality, in turn, reduces feelings of loneliness and decreases the need for large social networks.
"Increased individuality ... could lead to decreasing interest in friends, increasing self-reliance, increasing self-esteem, and decreasing loneliness," the researchers conclude.