Home alone, but entertained

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Unmarried and 27 years old, Hugh Norton could be out every evening, partaking in Washington's endless offerings of music, theater, film, sports, dining and clubs.

But after working a typically long day at an Alexandria, Va., public relations firm, Norton simply heads home to Washington's Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

Forgoing a movie out, he'll pop in a DVD. Instead of hitting the bars, he'll turn on his laptop and e-mail friends or play video games. Rather than head to a mall, he just shops online. Restaurants? He can grill a better burger at home.

"I don't need to make any more friends. It's expensive to go out all the time, and I don't like to be in large groups of people I don't know," Norton says.

Five years ago, Harvard University professor Robert D. Putnam warned that Americans are increasingly "bowling alone," turning away from get-togethers with friends and family, shunning memberships in Rotary clubs, bowling leagues and the social networks that strengthen a community's fabric.

Today, many signs indicate that Americans are further alienating themselves. Attendance at movies and concerts is down, while movie rentals and music downloads are up. Festivals, fairs and historic sites have seen drops in attendance, while digital - and largely solitary - amusements like video games and surfing the Internet have grown more popular.

The shared experience, experts say, could be in danger of vanishing.

"It's the privatization of entertainment," says Geoffrey Godbey, a professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University's College of Health and Human Development.

He and others who have studied the phenomenon say entertainment and leisure are increasingly fragmenting. Years ago, a family would gather at 8 p.m. to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, probably on what was the only television in the house. Today, family members are in separate rooms in front of separate screens, because the mass media have splintered into infinitely specialized media. Now, Mom is watching Desperate Housewives upstairs, Dad has ESPN on downstairs and the kids are in their rooms, picking from hundreds of TV and radio stations, or messaging friends while scrolling through Web sites on their computers.

Norton remembers how, as a student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio, he and his three roommates would come home from classes and turn on the TV, settling down in front of their laptops to play solitaire in the same room - stopping only when the pizza one of them ordered online was delivered.

Disturbing trend

But even as Americans have grown accustomed to such disconnected lives, there are those to whom this is a disturbing trend.

"This is a really formidable problem," says sociologist Ray Oldenburg, who wrote The Great Good Place, which discusses the importance of public gathering spots. Oldenburg is a proponent of what he calls the "third place," that tavern or health club that is neither home nor work, but an informal gathering place to meet friends or otherwise connect.

"I think the home is increasingly becoming a refuge," he says. "When the economy is good, it's not such a problem. But when the economy is bad, that's when you have trouble. People have no one to turn to for help.

"There's an attempt to make the home a substitute for the community, and it just can't do it," he says.

The activities and products seeing a spike in interest over the past few years are those that enable consumers to withdraw into their own worlds, while those on the downswing tend to toss strangers into a common space.

Last summer, the music industry experienced a 6 percent slump in concert ticket sales. This year, movie attendance is down 8 percent, continuing its slide over the past few years. The Orioles are leading their division, yet drawing franchise-low attendance at Camden Yards.

The 2002 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while museums and musicals saw a rise in attendance, festivals, fairs and historic sites saw a drop over a 10-year period.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam found that pleasurable get-togethers have been waning over the past 25 years. Such events include having friends over to the house (down 45 percent), joining organizations that meet regularly (down more than 50 percent) and even spending time with family (down a third).

Too busy for socializing

Stressed Americans say they simply don't have time anymore. The problem for many is that being leisurely can be hard work when they are running just to keep up.

By the time Mary Beth Campbell finishes volunteering at her children's schools, chauffeuring her kids to different sports and running errands, all she wants to do is retreat to her home in Millersville. It's rare that you'll find Campbell and her husband, Timothy, an executive vice president at Villa Julie College, out during the week.

On most nights, Campbell can be found cooking or cleaning in the kitchen, her 19- and 16-year-old daughters on the computer in the basement, her 13-year-old son playing video games or watching TV in one room, and her husband watching sports in the den.

"We did watch American Idol together," says the 45-year-old stay-at-home mother, laughing.

"I can't really say that we get out much. When there are two kids in the house who play two sports at a time, I am always in and out of the car a lot. I would rather not go out again after I get home.

"We do try to all go to church together on Sunday," Campbell says. "We also try to have at least family dinner on Sunday."

Such solitary experiences within households are common, experts say.

"The majority of our free time comes on the weekdays, not the weekends, and it comes in chunks of hours, not all at once," says Godbey of Penn State. "Synchronizing schedules is difficult. The average American lives in 750 square feet of space. The diffusion of television sets, DVDs and on and on means that, in some cases, we never have to spend time with anyone."

Take, for instance, the average amount of time spent online, which jumped to 12.5 hours per week, a 33 percent increase from 2000 to 2003, according to the University of Southern California Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future. Also in 2003, more than half of American households owned some sort of game machine, and the average person spent 75 hours playing video games, twice that of 1997, according to a Research and Markets report. Online retail sales rose almost 24 percent in 2004, according to Shop.org and Forrester Research.

Last year, Americans spent an average of 78 hours watching videos and DVDs, a 53 percent jump since 2000, the Motion Picture Association of America says.

In the same vein, walk into a Best Buy store, which has added a section devoted to high-end home theaters, and it's clear what has captivated the public. Digital television sales in 2004 totaled 7.2 million units, an increase of 75 percent from a year earlier, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. Likewise, almost 70 million households have a DVD player, according to a Forrester Research survey.

Enjoying TV and sleep

It should be of no surprise, then, that the No. 1 activity for most people is watching TV, which takes up more than half of our 35 to 40 hours of free time each week, according to various time-use studies.

Lori Atkins pleads guilty.

After working from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day as a general supervisor for the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, the 51-year-old Edgewood resident takes a walk in the park and then plants herself in front of the TV until 9 p.m.

If she's not watching that night's TV dramas, she's catching up on shows she recorded the night before.

"I know, I have no life," Atkins says. "For a lot of people, I think it may be prices that keep people home. It could be time. Maybe gas prices are too high. Or maybe they're just antisocial like me."

That's conceivable, especially when one of our other favorite activities happens to require even less energy: sleeping.

"It's possible we're just worn out totally from work," says Duane W. Crawford, an associate professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he specializes in family studies.

Keep in mind, he says, that Americans work more hours than the residents of any other industrialized nation.

"A long time ago, we used to think we would eventually get to a point where our free time was going to increase," Crawford says. "Just the opposite has happened. The dividing line between work and free time is continually blurred. And even when we spend time away from work, leisure is not what we had envisioned. It's sitting in front of the TV for four or five hours. It's how much can we jam into a weekend. It's doing two or three things simultaneously.

"Every minute of the day is structured," he adds. "Maybe the world is so busy, we've resorted to hiding out at home."

No need to leave

Perhaps that's why - besides the obvious reason that it's a good investment - homeowners spent almost $130 billion on improving and repairing their homes last year, with spending up by 5.2 percent since the first quarter of 2004, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies.

It's increasingly feasible to never leave that well-tended home.

Groceries? Have a supermarket deliver them. A gift for a friend? Flip through a catalog and have it mailed. Movies? Netflix or Blockbuster will send DVDs. Music? Download songs, or buy them online. Dating? Meet and chat with potentials through a Web site.

"It's distressing," Crawford says. "It's a negative utopia. Maybe we just don't know how to play anymore."

But it's possible, some experts say, that the fast-paced, over-stimulated lives many lead today have altered the definition of leisure, socializing and connecting: Online communities may well be the new Rotary or garden clubs.

Some believe that even if many Americans have retreated into their homes, they remain engaged in the world - just in a different way. They're text messaging rather than meeting face to face, for example, or joining online communities for everyone from cancer survivors to opera lovers.

"There are two schools of thought on this," says Amitai Etzioni, a sociology professor at George Washington University. "One is that we're going to less-organized public events. I suggest, though, that our forms of participation are changing.

"Many of the studies count any minutes in front of the computer as time spent alone," says Etzioni, who directs George Washington's Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies. "But much of our time is spent talking to people online. People read newspapers less, but they blog more. The format has changed."

Getting out of the house

Not all conventional public activities are down: The same NEA study that showed a drop in attendance at fairs and festivals found that more people are visiting museums, seeing musicals and participating in other arts events.

Eating out remains popular - restaurant industry sales are expected to reach a record $476 billion this year, an almost 5 percent increase over 2004.

And while concert-going was down last year, the industry magazine Pollstar says ticket sales look strong for this summer as big-name acts such as U2, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney are luring fans back to arenas.

For Godbey of Penn State, the issue is not so much how we pursue leisure, but what we get out it.

"Americans are never comfortable with leisure. It's just as [Alexis] de Tocqueville said: Americans are always in a hurry," Godbey says. "Fun has to be done without regard to what comes next."

Sun staff researcher Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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