In a recent infographic, we showed that we spend less time with friends as we age despite wanting more time with them. Could we change that? And if we could, then should we? Here, we’ll provide further context for that data and see what conclusions it might support.
Friends are one among several categories of people we spend time with. Our other major social relations include family (parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives), co-workers, children, and partners, plus the time we spend by ourselves. How we balance our social lives among these categories varies considerably over a lifetime. The changes tend to play out in three stages: youth, adulthood, and retirement.
Parents and other family are our unconditional foundation. Time with them becomes optional only later on. Their familial care and love are the basis of our earliest orientation — an initial sense of who we are and how we fit into this world.
Unlike family ties, friendships are conditional. Imagining what a person might think and feel and wanting to improve how well our impressions map to their inner experience are empathetic habits we grow into. As we develop such motivations and social skills, we become better playmates for one another. The more fun, laughter, and creativity we experience together, the more our social circles grow.
Family and friends are our formative social relations, but only in our youth do we spend a substantial part of each day in their company. At the age of 18, as most of us head to college, time with friends peaks while family time has already been in decline for years.
From late-teens to early 30s, the time we spend with both family and friends drops more than threefold and remains at an hour or less per day for the rest of our lives.
Over the course of our 20s, most of us start careers and families. At the expense of time with friends and family, this life transition introduces three new social categories: co-workers, partners, and children.
By the age of 30, time with co-workers and time with a partner plateau around 3 hours a day and remain at this level for 25 years.
For most of us, time raising children peaks in our mid-30s at over 4 hours per day, echoing the time we spent in our parents’ care several decades before. Then, from our 40s on, the time we spend alone each day increases by an hour every decade.
By mid-50s, most have become grandparents. Many reduce working hours or retire thereafter and spend more time with partners. However, by our mid-70s — reflecting an average life expectancy of under 80 years — fewer have partners to spend time with. We spend our last years more alone than ever.
These are just the averages, of course. Your own social life up until now might look quite different and who you spend your remaining time with is still largely up to you.
How conscientious you are in making time for those you care about undoubtedly makes a difference. However, given our finite lives, who you spend your time with is ultimately a matter of personal priorities, reflecting the tradeoffs you’re willing to make. In all likelihood, your social priorities at age 20 will differ from those at 40 and 60 — and who’s to say such shifts in perspective and priorities aren’t for the best?
While it’s clear that substantially decreased time with family and friends is a sacrifice most of us are willing to make to begin careers and families of our own, that doesn’t change the fact that we end up seeing and socializing with friends and family less than we would like to.
Social media to the rescue?
The time we spend online has doubled over the past decade and social media takes up more of that time than any other activity. Like in-person time with friends, time spent using social networks is highest among the youngest, although it tapers off more gradually across older age brackets than in-person time.
A substantial and growing percent of people consider the internet, social media, and texting important ways of maintaining their social relationships (Surveying The Digital Future 2017, p. 81). It’s less clear, however, whether these technologies for keeping up with one another have much of an effect on the time we spend in person with friends and loved ones.
Time spent face to face is the most important means through which we create, deepen and maintain friendships, but it’s not the only factor. In their 2003 paper Best Friends Forever?Oswald and Clark analyzed the changeover in best-friends among students leaving for their first year of university. Whereas proximity alone was not a strong predictor of whether the relationships would survive, volume of communication had a strong positive correlation.
Roberts and Dunbar demonstrated in their 2011 paper Communication in Social Networks, that emotionally closer friendships are correlated with a shorter time-since-last-contact (by phone, letter or email) than less emotionally-close relationships. Stated plainly, we communicate more often with closer friends. Face-to-face contact did not show the same relationship, in part because many of our daily in-person interactions are among more casual social relationships (e.g. co-workers or neighbors).
While face-to-face contact alone is therefore not a strong predictor of the emotional closeness of a relationship, it’s still an essential basis for our close ties. The Quality of Online Social Relationships (Cummings, Butler and Kraut) did not find online interactions to be a replacement for offline socialization. Further underscoring the necessity of offline interaction to relationship development, a recent paper by Jeffrey Hall titled How many hours does it take to make a friend?suggests that it takes approximately 50 hours of in-person non-work time to develop a casual relationship and 200 hours for a close relationship.
Unfortunately, the available evidence for any direct effects between online and offline socialization are mixed and sometimes conflicting. The BBC’s summary of a study from Daria Kuss states that more time spent on social media sites can result in “less involvement in real-life communities” and that patterns of overuse can even cause psychological dependence.
More positively, the Pew Research Center found in their landmark 2011 study of social network behavior that users of social media tend to have slightly larger friend networks, are more likely to have close ties, and are less likely to be socially isolated.
Even though social media use does take time from other activities, evidence from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the fraction of time that would otherwise go to in-person socialization sacrificed to “online leisure time” is a relatively tiny part (5%) of the trade. (Work, watching TV, and sleep are the biggest casualties, together accounting for over half of the time displaced.) Whatever the benefits or consequences of social media use, significantly increasing or decreasing the amount of time we spend face-to-face with friends doesn’t appear to be among its effects.
If a social networking service were purely directed toward helping people fulfill their social needs — holistically rather than merely as a supplement — then beyond offering a platform for sharing and communicating with one another online, it would serve as an optimal tool for facilitating offline get-togethers.
Whereas today’s social media giants are designed to maximize user engagement and hold users’ attention as long as possible, a tool focused on helping friends make plans together would get your group on the same page and to the same place, quickly and with ease.
Technology that makes it easier to organize time together with the people you care about can help you achieve your social life priorities. That’s been our aim in developing Sujjest.