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Teens spending less time with friends even after pandemic, study finds

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Diana Cossaboom, U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs functional area manager, texts with a friend at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., Jan. 12, 2017. (Tech. Sgt. Amanda Dick/U.S. Air Force)
June 19, 2023

The decline of in-person social gatherings among American teenagers is becoming increasingly evident, according to a new study.

According to the national survey of adolescents called Monitoring the Future, the percentage of high school seniors who gathered with friends in person “almost every day” dropped from 44 percent in 2010 to 32 percent in 2022. Similarly, the average eighth grader’s social outings decreased from about 2.5 per week in 2000 to 1.5 in 2021.

This shift away from face-to-face interaction has been accompanied by a rise in digital communication platforms. Adolescents now spend more time connecting with friends on social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Discord, rather than gathering in traditional social spaces such as shopping malls, movie theaters or recreation rooms.

Researchers believe that this decline in social gatherings is closely linked to the growing wave of adolescent loneliness observed in recent years. Multiple studies have documented an increase in rates of loneliness among teenagers before, during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy even declared a national loneliness epidemic, highlighting its connection to depression and other mental health issues that are increasingly prevalent among teens.

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Current teenagers spend more time in front of screens than any previous generation. According to Common Sense Media, the average teen spent eight hours and 39 minutes on daily screen time for entertainment in 2021, up from six hours and 40 minutes in 2015. However, researchers caution against oversimplifying the effects of screen time, acknowledging that it can have both positive and negative impacts on children.

A Pew Research study revealed that nearly half of American teenagers now claim to be online “almost constantly,” with more than half admitting to being effectively addicted to social media. Social media use has been linked by the surgeon general and others to a rise in depression and anxiety among teenagers.

Even with the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, adolescent loneliness persists. A recent survey conducted by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that 21 percent of teens reported feeling lonely most or all of the time. Experts like Richard Weissbourd from Harvard emphasize that face-to-face relationships are crucial for adolescent development and that social media can only supplement, not replace, in-person interactions.