It is coronavirus time. In many places around the world, we are being urged or even mandated to practice social distancing. For those of us who live alone, that could mean much more time by ourselves.
In fact, though, long before the coronavirus, the time we spend alone had been increasing remarkably. That’s not just true for people who live alone. Single parents, couples without kids, and nuclear families with their parents and children all under the same roof – people in all of these kinds of arrangements have been spending more time alone.
Reports of time use have been collected in a number of countries, including the United States. The best reporting I’ve seen of changes over time comes from Finland, in a just-published study of time spent alone between 1987 and 2010.
The data available to Timo Anttila and his co-authors were impressive. Surveys of a representative sample of the Finnish population, ages 10 and older, were conducted in 1987, 2000, and 2010. The number of people who participated was either 1,187 (in 1987 and 2010) or 2,673 (in 2000). Different people participated in the surveys in the different years. It would have been even better if the same people were followed over time.
Participants kept a diary of their time use for 2 days. Every 10 minutes, during waking hours, they described what they were doing. They indicated at each 10-minute interval whether they were alone or with someone they knew. (I don’t know why they excluded the category of being around strangers.) If they were with someone, they indicated who that person was.
Here are some of the findings from the study.
- The amount of time that people spend alone has increased dramatically. In 2010, people in Finland were spending more than two extra hours alone every day than they had in 1987. In 2010, people were spending 7.5 hours a day alone. That was 124 minutes more than they had spent alone in 1987. (The article is not behind a paywall, so if you want to see the graph of these findings, take a look at Figure 1.)
- Over time, people were spending less time with family members and less time with friends. But the decline was sharper for family than for friends.
- Time alone increased the most for single people without kids, but it also increased for single parents, couples without kids, and couples with kids.
- Time alone increased the most on weekdays, but it increased on weekends, too.
- Both males and females have been spending more time alone. During weekdays, though, the increase in time spent alone has been especially big for the males.
- Overall, the amount of time that people spend alone increases with age. People ages 10 through 20 spend the least amount of time alone, and people 65 and older spent the most time alone, with every other category fitting neatly in place in between. That was true at all three points in time (1987, 2000, and 2010).
- For all age groups except the oldest, the amount of time they spent alone increased between 1987 and 2000 and again between 2000 and 2010. People who were 65 and older spent less time alone in 2000 than they had in 1987. Then their time alone increased between 2000 and 2010, and ended up about where it was in 1987. Still, at every point in time, this oldest group was spending more time alone than any of the younger groups. (See Figure 2.)
- The amount of time spent alone has increased over time for people who are employed and people who are unemployed, people who are retired and people who are disabled. On the average, people who are employed spend less time alone than people who are unemployed.
- People in both rural and urban areas have been spending more and more time alone. Although it appears at first that on the average, people in rural areas spend more time alone, the difference is actually due to other ways that rural and urban people differ.
- Time spent alone increased over time for 4 of the 5 activities that were tracked: leisure, chores, personal needs, and work. There was no increase in alone time while studying.
- Ten kinds of leisure activities were tracked. Time spent alone declined noticeably over time for only one of the ten leisure activities – sports and outdoor activities. Even for that category, the decline only happened over the weekends.
- Far and away, the greatest increases in time spent alone were for watching TV and using computers. In 2010, people spent an average of about 34 additional minutes every day watching TV than they had in 1987. (Just about everyone – 95% or 96% — had a TV in their household at all three points in time.) People spent about 26 more minutes every day on their computers in 2010 than they had in 1987. (The percentages of the participants who had computers were 15, 52, and 81 in 1987, 2000, and 2010, respectively.)
In theory, television could have been a means of bringing people together within a household, if the people living together gathered around to watch the same show at the same time. Instead, something different happened. Over time, the number of televisions in a typical household increased, from 1 in every 3 rooms in 1987 to one in every other room since 2010. The more screens in any given household, the more time individual household members spend watching TV alone on their own screens.
That helps to explain why time spent alone is increasing not just among people living alone but everyone else, too:
“…the increase in time spent alone not only reflects a growing proportion of the Finnish people living alone but also that more people who live in family homes are spending time apart from each other in front of separate screens when at home.”
In this study, only physical togetherness counted as time spent with other people. An unanswered question is, how much of the time that people are spending on computers involves connecting with other people?
We cannot know from this study alone how the amount of time that Finnish people spend alone compares to the amount of time that people spend alone in other countries. There is other research comparing the time that children spend alone. As the authors of this study note, every day, Finnish children spend an average of more than 1 additional hour alone, compared to children in Spain or the UK.