Britons increasingly shun relatives and neighbours in favour of smartphones, study finds

Phil Thornton
The proposals suggest that Ofcom's role will be more focused on setting guidelines and rules, and imposing sanctions when companies fail to meet them: Getty Images

This may not come as a surprise to anyone living in a modern UK town or city, but Britons are interacting less with their neighbours or elderly parents and far more with their mobile phone.

A detailed exercise attempting to spot changing trends in personal relationships, social network support, civic engagement, and trust points to a growing individualism.

The report by the Office for National Statistics called Social Capital in the UK: 2020 is based on 25 indicators that come mainly from self-reported survey data.

It found the proportion of those saying they felt they belonged to their neighbourhood had fallen to 62 per cent compared with 69 per cent four years ago.

The proportion who regularly stop and talk to their neighbours has also fallen relative to 2011 and 2012 from 66 per cent to 62 per cent, suggesting lower engagement within our communities.

Also, compared with eight years ago, people were less likely to provide help to others through providing special help to sick, elderly or disabled persons or through parental links after children have left home

In 2018, 36 per cent of adults reported regularly or frequently receiving help from their children aged 16 years or older not living with them, six percentage points lower than in 2012.

Tasks included giving them lifts in their car, shopping or cooking their meals, washing, ironing or cleaning and dealing with personal affairs such as paying bills, writing letters or doing decorating, gardening or house repairs.

While the findings point to a more atomised society, the ONS said the fall in parents receiving help from children not living with them could be related to more parents and adult children living together.

Multi-family households consisting of two or more families were the fastest growing household type over the 10 years to 2019, which the ONS said might reflect families living together out of necessity because of housing affordability, childcare responsibilities or caring for older relatives.

However, there was a clear increase in the use of social media, with 68 per cent of people saying they had used the internet for social networking in the last three months, up from just over half 53 per cent seven years ago.

“Our social capital findings show that we are engaging less with our neighbours but more with social media,” said Eleanor Rees, head of the ONS’ social well-being analysis team. “We feel safer walking alone after dark in our neighbourhoods, but more recently fewer of us feel like we belong to them.”

Sunder Katwala, director of independent thinktank British Future that last month joined a call for a “decade of reconnection”, said the report underlined something he said many people had felt for some time. “We have become less connected with our fellow citizens. Our society is more divided than any of us would like,” he said.

“Most people would like to feel more connected with their neighbours and people in their community. But rebuilding a more connected society will take action at all levels — from the Government and institutions to communities and individuals too. There is a public appetite for us all to play our part in ensuring we turn this around.”

Meanwhile at the UK level, trust in national government fell by 11 percentage points in the year to autumn 2019 to just 21 per cent. The finding is likely to reflect growing public anger at the failure of the government and parliament to agree a deal on Brexit during 2017 and almost all of 2018.

Read more

One in four young people ‘addicted to their smartphones’

Social media addicts 'have same personality traits' as drug addicts

Instagram’s latest feature aims to tackle social media addiction

Is your child ready for a smartphone?

US may monitor phones of people with mental health problems

Beautiful countryside 'hides ugly truth of poverty and isolation'