Moneybox

The Government Says Americans Have Stopped Hanging Out. No, They Haven’t.

More time doing this.

Olaf Speier/ThinkStock

The annual American Time Use Survey was released last week, and provoked the same question it does every year: How the hell do you people get so much sleep?

The average American, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics project, is getting eight hours and 50 minutes of sleep—an entire Lord of the Rings trilogy of shut-eye!—every night.

The report has good news for television (including Netflix), which retains its dominant role in American life, occupying two hours and 50 minutes of the average day. And bad news for reading, which takes up just 8 minutes in the average weekend day of a 15-to-24-year-old. In short, younger millennials are basically reading the back of the cereal box and nothing else.

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Most striking is this: Nothing has changed more in the past decade than the amount of time we spend socializing. As Christopher Ingraham observes at the Washington Post, the average American spent 9 percent less time socializing in 2015 than in 2005, though leisure time at large has actually increased during that period. The average American spent just 40 minutes a day socializing in 2015.

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At first glance, this seems to jibe with what sociologists like Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, have been saying for decades about the decline of American civic life. In Social Trends in American Life, a 2012 collection of studies on the results of the General Social Survey, the authors reported an evident decline in American social activity. The percent of Americans who hung out with neighbors more than once a month fell from 44 percent in 1974 to 30 in 2008. Americans don’t socialize the way they used to.

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It’s also true, though, that Americans literally don’t socialize the way they used to.

Socializing, in the BLS lexicon, comprises “face-to-face social communication and hosting or attending social functions.” To state the obvious, that is an awfully restrictive description of modern social life. For young Americans, at least, the virtual dimension of social life has long become a primary (if not the primary) forum for interaction with friends or finding a date. You may not like it, but that’s the way we chill now.

“Using the internet for personal interest,” meanwhile, may encompass nearly every free moment of your life—but in the BLS lexicon it’s just another leisure activity. According to the Time Use Survey, average computer or internet use for leisure (not including gaming or TV) has grown from 8 minutes a day in 2003–06 to 14 minutes a day last year. That still seems low, though the increase more than counteracts the loss in social minutes. Among survey respondents who had used a computer for fun the previous day, the reported time was one hour and 42 minutes.

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Smartphone usage, by the way, doesn’t have a space carved out in the BLS time use breakdown, though Americans collectively check their smartphones 8 billion times a day, according to a 2015 study by Deloitte.

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This illustrates the general difficulty in accounting for time spent in the virtual world. For one thing, smartphones and computers tend to host multiple activities at once, a Fourth of July planning thread alongside a work report, behind a half-read magazine article and a Minesweeper game, and next to Facebook (always Facebook). For another, the social lures of the virtual world rarely constitutes a primary focus but tends to grab one’s attention under the table at a dinner party, in the hot dog line at a baseball game, or behind the wheel (for shame, texting drivers!).

Figuring all that out sounds like a headache, and it does seem like it’s bad that we are physically seeing less of each other. But at least in the eyes of the Time Use Survey, chatting on Tinder in line at Chipotle ought to be the same as going to book club. Socializing on a screen is still socializing, whatever its faults may be.

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