In 2006 sociologists Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears delivered grim research findings: Americans’ core discussion networks, the network of people with whom people can discuss important matters, have shrunk and become less diverse over the past twenty years. They found that people depend more on a small network of home-centered kin and less on a larger network that includes ties from voluntary groups and neighborhoods. The authors argued that a large, unexpected social change was responsible for this trend and suggested it might be the rising popularity of new communication and information technologies such as the internet and mobile phone. Their study did not directly explore this possibility. Our current study was designed to probe: Is people’s use of the internet and cell phones tied to a reduction in the size and diversity of core discussion networks and social networks more broadly?
In their paper “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks” McPherson, Smith-Lovin and Brashears presented bleak findings from their analysis of the 2004 General Social Survey (GSS), a large biennial survey that explores social and economic trends. The authors found that, in comparison to the 1985 GSS, the data gathered in 2004 showed that the average number of confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters fell from 2.94 to 2.08. Furthermore, in 2004 a full 25% of Americans reported having no close confidants – almost a threefold increase since 1985.
McPherson et al. also argued that core discussion networks had not only shrunk but had become less diverse. A high proportion of those confidants lost between 1985 and 2004 were non-kin (not family members). That resulted in networks composed of a larger proportion of family members. In particular, spouses, partners, and parents were found to make up an increasingly large part of Americans’ core networks. The people Americans met through participation outside the home, such as in neighborhoods and voluntary organizations, had been disproportionately dropped from core networks.
The implications of these changes to the composition and structure of personal networks are far reaching. The diminished number of core ties in discussion networks suggests that Americans have fewer people with whom they can discuss important things, resulting in a decrease in the availability of social support to them. Scholars have showed that this includes access to emotional aid and companionship, and less access to critical resources in a crisis . Core discussion ties are also important because other research has demonstrated that they are highly influential in attitude and opinion formation [3, 4]. Fewer and less diverse ties for the discussion of important matters may also lessen awareness of the many sides to an issue, shape opinion quality, and reduce political participation [5, 6]. Those with larger, more diverse networks tend to be more trusting and more tolerant . They cope with daily troubles and trauma more effectively and tend to be physically and mentally healthier .
If the number and diversity of those with whom people discuss important matters is threatened, so is the ability of individuals to be healthy, informed, and active participants in American democracy.
While the rise of the internet and mobile connectivity coincides with the reported decline of core discussion networks, the mixed evidence on mobile phone use and internet activities does not provide a clear link between these trends (a review of this literature can be found in Appendix A: Extended Literature Review). However, until now, no study has focused directly on the composition of core networks and the role of internet and mobile phone use.