First year university students are lonelier and more innocent than ever, survey says


College freshmen report spending less time hanging out with their friends than they have in the past three decades, a new report shows.

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

Only 18 per cent of freshmen surveyed in 2014 said they spent at least 16 hours a socialising with peers, according to a report released last week 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. Nearly 39 per cent 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 US 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 per cent 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 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 parties and so little in-person friend time in their past may be leaving large shares of students unable to socialise. "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 per cent 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 per cent from 18.9 pe rcent. "Students are finding new and different ways to socialise," Eagan says, which partly accounts for the decline in time spent on "traditional" socialising. It has yet to be proved, however, that face-to-face interaction can be replaced by a Facebook poke or an excellently illustrated Snapchat.