Human connection through friendships is one of the many areas of society upended by the pandemic. We’ve seen how “normal” is starting to mean a loss of friendships and the impacts that’s having on our well-being, but that’s only one side of the coin. What about the friendships that Americans are still holding onto? What does socializing with friends look like today going on year four of the pandemic?

Is In-person back in?

Data from just prior to the holiday season in December indicated much more of an openness toward in-person holiday celebrations. The return of in-person activities like gathering with family in-person may also be carrying over to friendships as well, but only to an extent.

Less than half (43%) of Americans socialize with their friends in person on a daily or weekly basis. While many regularly see friends in person, it’s still less likely for friends to see each other daily – only 14% say they’re coming together to socialize every day.

Gen Z adults and younger Millennials lead the way when it comes to seeing their friends in person daily; unsurprising given school and college life can help foster daily interactions. In the 55+ crowd, they’re equally as likely as younger Millennials (31% each) to hang out with friends in person, but they’re also the most likely age group to rarely have in-person time with friends, if at all. The risks from Covid infections among the older generations, in particular, could be a factor.

Can’t be with family or friends in person? Text, please.

How we’re communicating with those we care about when we’re not in person is a shifting landscape from where it was a year-and-a-half ago. What was once a single-digit gap between texting and phone calls has now doubled in texting’s favor. Nearly half of U.S. adults (49%) say they turn to texting while 32% opt to pick up the phone and call. Use of Mobile messaging apps (WhatsApp, for example), social media and email are much less common with each, running below 10%. 

A loss of friendships, but a gain in a sense of belonging.

Intertwined with friendships is a sense of belonging; a feeling of being supported, connected, and accepted. It can be a source of self-esteem, and lacking it may be a predictor for depression. In spite of the prevalence of losing friendships, another trend is emerging alongside it – the sense of belonging to a group of people is growing.

New CivicScience data show the percentage of people who felt they belonged to a group over the past year ‘somewhat often’ and ‘very often’ each increased from 2021 polling data. ‘Very often’ increased by two percentage-points (19% to 21%) and ‘somewhat often’ by four percentage-points (30% to 34%). The number of people reporting they felt a sense of belonging to a group ‘not at all often’ declined by six percentage points as a result. 

While friendship may not guarantee the feeling of belonging to a group, it does play a significant role. Among people who rarely or never socialize with their friends in person, 80% reported feeling a sense of belonging ‘not at all often.’ The feelings also get stronger the more close friends people have. Forty-one percent of those with five or more close friends felt a sense of belonging ‘very often,’ 18 percentage-points higher than people with one or two close friends (23%).

How ‘social’ is social media?

Social media usage correlates with feelings of belonging as well. CivicScience polling finds people who use social media for less than an hour a day are the most likely among social media users to feel a sense of belonging ‘very often.’ Conversely, more than half of people who log two or more hours a day scrolling through social media (55%) rarely felt a sense of belonging in the last year. Despite the many friends and followers one might have online, frequent users aren’t feeling very connected to others.

In the pandemic’s “new normal” world, some of our friendships have gone by the wayside, but perhaps we’re placing a greater value on the ones we’re holding onto. Staying connected with those friendships, especially in person, supports the growth of a sense of belonging that the earlier pandemic years made more difficult to obtain. Trends CivicScience will continue to monitor as 2023 moves forward. 

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