THE BLOG
08/30/2014 07:55 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2014

Family, Friends and Technology

Are people less friendly than they used to be?

Being a clergyman, my family and I moved often. I have never lived long enough in one town or city to compare the current attitudes of people with how individuals and families felt and acted in the past, say thirty-five or forty years ago. It usually takes that long for basic living habits of populations to change to a noticeable degree. I have had the "gut feeling," though, that people today in small towns and large cities tend to be less friendly than people in past years. I set out to find reliable information on this matter, and what I learned is very interesting.

As I looked beyond having just a "gut feeling" about attitudes and practices of people, I became aware of the "General Social Survey." It is conducted every other year by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and collects household data from all regions of the U.S. I found a lot of information that relates to the friendliness of people.

The survey suggests that what I have been calling "less friendly" appears to be more of a "disconnect" among people -- a disconnect fueled by such things as: ease of travel, distance, increase in crime, changing technology, the Internet, social media, working parents, and very busy lives. This disconnect has steadily influenced our basic living habits, including how we treat others.

With the fear of having children kidnapped or abused, neighborhood children don't roam their neighborhoods playing together as they used to. There are fewer "latch-key" children who come home from school and are at home by themselves until mom or dad gets home. With so many working parents, fewer children are able to stay with a neighbor until their parents get home. Working parents are tired at night and have things to do around the house, making it difficult for them to find the time and energy to be outside to watch over neighborhood games--hide and seek, kick the can, capture the flag, or what have you.

At night children now spend more time playing games on their computers, surfing the Internet, texting their friends, and things like that. Little by little families and neighborhoods become disconnected. Fewer personal friends are being made, and children are also developing fewer social skills. Eventually all of this translates into what appears to be a less friendly way of living than was the case in past years. As families have withdrawn more to themselves, they are not necessarily or intentionally being unfriendly; instead, they have become disconnected from other people.

Women's and men's organizations have many fewer members now than in the past. Fewer churches today have women's fellowship groups and men's early-morning prayer breakfasts. Service clubs are struggling to sustain their memberships, as are many churches. All of this leads to fewer "community" person-to-person relationships, again creating the impression of a less friendly population.

The ease of travel has led to more adults taking jobs far from where they were reared--and far away from other family members. They stay in contact using e-mail and various forms of social media, but they usually get back home less often as time passes. Family relationships that once were so meaningful are now on the wane.

These are only a few examples of what appears to be a general unfriendliness, but is actually a social disconnect that has enveloped multiple aspects of our lives.

Marc J. Dunkelman, a research fellow at Brown University, suggests that gridlock in Washington, DC, stems from this same kind of disconnect. It used to be that most Senators ate lunch in the Senate Dining Room, and it was common to see a handful of Democrats and Republicans sitting around the same table discussing issues and working out compromises that led to legislation being passed. The stories are legend about major players in both parties going out together at the end of the day for a drink or dinner, forging friendships that carried over to the halls of Congress. I am told that today fewer and fewer Senators are actually sitting down in the Senate Dining Room for lunch, but, instead, they or their staff members hurry in and out, picking up carryout orders.

Now, the entire House or Senate seldom assembles to debate issues. Instead, when Senators and Representatives speak, their respective chamber is nearly empty; closed-circuit television broadcasts their speeches to all Congressional offices, where their colleagues can listen and watch without leaving their offices. Their personal relationships have been replaced by technological modernism, which leads to personal disconnect, which leads to political gridlock.

We have recently seen some powerful leaders in Congress be defeated or just barely win because they did not go back to their home districts frequently enough to keep in touch with the people they represent. And many members of the Senate and House do not see the need for personal relationships -- they communicate by e-mail and social media.

You get the point don't you, and I'm sure you can come up with many more examples. The disconnects of today's society are leading to the demise of a wide range of personal and professional friendships, adversely affecting how we treat one another. And current generations of young people are so connected to social media that they are not even aware of the value of personal relationships.

The tragedy of it all!

(Primary sources of information: Marc J. Dunkelman, The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, August, 2014; Chronicle of Higher Education, "What Data Can't Convey, August 19, 2014.)