Over the last decade or so, we’re staying home more, going out less, and spending far more time in front of our screens. Here are the trends that underlie these changes.
There are a few things we accept as constants: death, taxes, and a teenager’s unquenchable desire to drive as soon and as often as possible. However, this third point is now in contention. According to the Washington Post, only 44 percent of U.S. teenagers have their driver’s license by the time they reach 18. For someone who grew up in the 80s, this sounds insane, like a headline pulled from satirical news site The Onion, but the reasons for the change aren’t hard to find.
Learning to drive has always been a risky proposition. The only way to drive well is to practice driving, and new drivers are at higher risk for accidents than their more experienced roadmates. Youth itself contributes to the risk as young brains have not yet fully developed the frontal lobes that curb impulsiveness and promote responsible behavior.
In response to the high rate of accidents, injuries and fatalities, legislatures have added several additional hurdles to the licensure process. Their intent was to create a graduated license system that would encourage more young drivers to practice under supervision before earning their full license. However, teens weigh the additional cost and inconvenience of limited licenses and decide that it might be better to take public transportation, ride with others, or simply stay home for a year or two longer.
I could quote statistics all day, but it won’t help. Somewhere in most parents’ hearts is the conviction that letting their children out to play in the neighborhood is all but inviting a child abduction and murder. Sometime in the last two decades, walking to school has gone from a routine activity to something that just does not happen, or at least not in my neighborhood.
I suppose it’s easy and traditional to bash the news media. Although we know that child abductions are no higher today than in the past, and may well be much lower, we hear more about them. Law enforcement only adds to the brouhaha with emergency alerts that arrive on our phones, on our television screens, and on digital road signs. These alerts tell us a child is missing, but they don’t tell us that usually the child has been abducted by a non-custodial parent, and they never tell us that the child has most often been returned unharmed. Instead, child abduction intrudes on our awareness again and again. The unstated message: perhaps it would be better if we just kept our children inside all the time.
Geography and Architecture
It wasn’t long after most people were able to own a car that our cities and towns changed so that car ownership was all but mandatory. Lots were bigger. Sidewalks became optional if not actually rare, and affordable housing moved farther and farther from the city center. None of these trends is insurmountable as long as you have a car. But sprawl slowly turns up the cost, both in time and in money, of traveling for any purpose, be it work or social. More and more people are working from home and grateful to shed a punishing commute each day. That same meet up with friends takes more miles, more minutes and more gallons of fuel. Maybe we’ll just stay home and give them a call instead?
It’s easy for me to identify a city that was built before the automobile. Streets are small but there is always room for pedestrians. In my home town, the absurdly car-centric Atlanta, I intuitively and unconsciously add 15-30 minutes of travel time between every activity for driving. Go to breakfast? 15-30 minute drive. Go to a bookstore? 15-30 minutes delay. Get a coffee? 15-30 minute lag-time. But when traveling, I was shocked at how fast I could go through my morning on foot and how much more pleasant it was. There are still walkable places, but they are now the exception rather than the rule. In a sprawl, it makes more sense to shop on Amazon than at the local mall.
The Social Network
Social interaction was once assumed to be a face-to-face affair. With Facebook’s rise to prominence, much socialization began happening on a screen. Not only does online social networking avoid the expenses of travel, but it allows us to time-shift our interactions so we don’t have to be at the same place at the same time. The convenience of online social networking seems to more than compensate for the loss of quality, or at least that’s what I assume when I hear that people are substituting online socialization for real-life interaction.
Infinite Channels and Everything’s On
Many of the reasons we stay home have to do with the world outside becoming more and more hostile, expensive, and inconvenient. On the other hand, home has become more comfortable, with more entertainment and recreation on tap, anytime, night or day.
Where we used to watch a television series one episode at a time, many are “Netflix binging” on entire seasons at a sitting. In our larger houses, we’re installing larger, higher-resolution screens that all but equal what we see in the theaters. Speaking of theaters, who goes there anymore? When I see a preview I like, I put a reminder in my phone to let me know when I can watch it at home for far less money, on my own time, and in the ever-growing comfort of my own home.
When we stay home more, we know there are trade-offs. There’s more entertainment closer at hand, but our real-life friends and community are put at arms-length. With couch culture overthrowing car culture, we’re at even greater risk of becoming unhealthy simply because an increasing fraction of our work and leisure can happen without us ever leaving home.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by