The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Today’s college freshmen socialize less, Internet more than any generation before

An architecture student on his computer (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Generations of high-school seniors have dreamed of the glories college would bring: independence, parties, friends.

But it seems that the college dream looks, well, a little less social in 2015. According to a new national survey, today’s young adults — more than any cohort recorded before them — spend more time on their computers, and less time hanging out with friends.

The finding comes from UCLA’s annual national survey of incoming college freshmen, which the school’s Higher Education Research Institute has conducted every year since 1987. This year’s data comes from 153,015 rising freshmen at 227 four-year colleges — in other words, it’s pretty representative. And what it represents may, to some onlookers, seem rather bleak.

In 1987, when the survey began, nearly four in 10 students said they spent 16 hours or more each week chilling with their friends. Today that number has fallen by more than half: fewer than two in 10 kids spend that much time with their friends. (It’s common for today’s students to socialize five hours or fewer a week — that’s roughly 43 minutes a day.)

Meanwhile, researchers observed that students are spending a heck of a lot more time by themselves, on the Internet: 27 percent said they spend six hours or more on social networks every week. So we’re not even getting into the time they spend on e-mail, or Netflix, or — God forbid! — studying.

We don’t want to overstate what’s going on here, of course: These trend lines don’t necessarily mean that every new college freshman is staying in on Friday night to stalk Facebook jealously.

That said, there are only a finite number of hours in the day. When America’s 18-year-olds begin collectively dedicating more time to Vine or Snapchat or Yik Yak or whatever the hot new thing is, they’re necessarily spending less time on something else. The survey suggests it might be IRL socializing.

But this seems like a distinctly old-school distinction to make, doesn’t it? Socializing online; socializing in-person. We’d be unlikely to draw the same strict line between talking face-to-face and talking on the phone, though the functional difference between those two things has similarly eroded. Prior research would suggest that when teens are absorbed in their phones or computers, they’re not necessarily being antisocial — they’re just being social in another way.

Six in 10 teenagers use texting as a primary mode of communication; 29 percent use social networking sites to speak to acquaintances and friends. And while, per a 2012 report, 49 percent of teenagers still prefer to speak to their friends face-to-face, a paper-thin majority now prefer texting, chatting or messaging. It’s quicker and easier, they point out. It gives everyone more time to compose themselves, to think.

Maybe what we’re seeing here is less a change in how young adults spend their time — and more a seismic shift in how we see technology.