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Study: 25% of Americans have no one to confide in

Janet Kornblum
USA TODAY

Americans have a third fewer close friends and confidants than just two decades ago — a sign that people may be living lonelier, more isolated lives than in the past.

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom to confide matters that were important to them, says a study in today's American Sociological Review. In 2004, that number dropped to two, and one in four had no close confidants at all.

"You usually don't see that kind of big social change in a couple of decades," says study co-author Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

Close relationships are a safety net, she says. "Whether it's picking up a child or finding someone to help you out of the city in a hurricane, these are people we depend on."

Also, research has linked social isolation and loneliness to mental and physical illness.

The study finds fewer contacts are from clubs and neighbors; people are relying more on family, a phenomenon documented in the 2000 book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, a Harvard public policy professor.

The percentage of people who confide only in family increased from 57% to 80%, and the number who depend totally on a spouse is up from 5% to 9%, the study found. "If something happens to that spouse or partner, you may have lost your safety net," Smith-Lovin says.

The study is based on surveys of 1,531 people in 1985 and 1,467 in 2004, part of the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Not everyone sees such a dire picture. People still have other friends, sociologist Barry Wellman of the University of Toronto says. "We have a lot of ties that aren't super strong but are still pretty important."

Why people have fewer close friends is unclear, Putnam says. "This is a mystery like Murder on the Orient Express, in which there are multiple culprits."

The chief suspects: More people live in the suburbs and spend more time at work, Putnam says, leaving less time to socialize or join groups.

Also, people have more entertainment tools such as TV, iPods and computers, so they can stay home and tune out. But some new trends, such as online social networking, may help counter the effect, he says.

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