College Freshmen Are Lonelier and More Innocent Than Ever

Students drink and hang out less than they have in three decades. The only thing they do more of is surf the Web

Photographer: Matt Dell/Flickr

College campuses may have a reputation for rampant debauchery, but increasingly the students showing up at orientation just look like lonely homebodies. College freshmen report spending less time hanging out with their friends than they have in the past three decades, a new study shows.

Only 18 percent of freshmen surveyed in 2014 said they spent at least 16 hours a week socializing with peers, according to a report released Thursday by researchers at UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute (PDF). That's the lowest level since researchers began polling this group in 1987. At the same time, more freshmen are spending just a handful of hours with friends every week. Almost 39 percent of freshmen said they spent five hours or less a week with buddies—an all-time high. For the annual report, researchers surveyed 153,015 freshmen at 227 four-year U.S. colleges in fall 2014, administering their questions during orientation or at the beginning of classes.  

UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute

Students weren't just hanging out less. They also came to campus with less partying experience than any of their predecessors. Only 8.6 percent of today's freshmen said they'd partied at least six hours a week during their senior year of high school, down from 34.5 in 1987. "It seems students are neglecting their social lives in lieu of focusing on their academic lives, perhaps in part because of the messages they've been sent for a number of years—for some, since elementary school—about the importance of getting into a good college," says Kevin Eagan, an assistant professor in residence at UCLA.

Less pre-college partying might sound like a good thing. But having so few teen keggers and so little in-person friend time in their past may be leaving large shares of students unable to socialize. "As students encounter conflict or need to have more difficult conversations with friends in college, it might be more difficult for them if they have less experience," Eagan says. It may also negatively affect their mental health. The percentage of freshmen reporting they frequently felt depressed rose to 9.5 percent in 2014, up from 6.1 in 2009. "Not having a social outlet may be contributing to increased levels of anxiety, and increased feelings of being overwhelmed," Eagan says. 

The only thing today's college freshmen appeared to be doing more of was a solitary activity: spending time online. Since 2007, the share of freshmen who spend at least six hours a week on online social networks has risen to 27.2 percent from 18.9 percent. "Students are finding new and different ways to socialize," Eagan says, which partly accounts for the decline in time spent on "traditional" socializing. It has yet to be proved, however, that face-to-face interaction can be replaced by a Facebook poke or an excellently illustrated Snapchat.