Where do young people hang out in our cocooning times, and why?
The percent of people who stay holed up in their private sphere these days is far greater than it was in the 1980s; Americans in all parts of the country have not hunkered down this much since the mid-century. Still, there's a continuum of cocooning -- some are mostly invisible to the outside world, but some go out every day, even into public spaces. And yet the types of places they go to show that they aren't as open, trusting, and outgoing as it may appear from the mere fact that they left home. First, a review of where people go, and then an account of why they visit these places and not others.
Children are not allowed outside at all anymore, so their public hang-outs have vanished -- the video game arcade, the roller rink, the mall, the park, the playground, the pool, etc., and have not been replaced or built over by new public hang-outs for kids. Teenagers who haven't left for college don't hang out much in public either. Occasionally you'll see a few at the shopping centers, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, but mostly they're locked inside by helicopter parents too. Worse, they don't rebel against their smothering mothers and sneak out.
College students are different -- they're typically away from their parents, so they have more freedom. The biggest change in campus life over the past 15-20 years has to be the transformation of the library into a primary hang-out spot. Movies, TV shows, and commercials from the '80s show people studying in the library, perhaps with friends, but it wasn't a main destination for hanging out. Now students are eager to spend hours at a time inside the library.
Before, campus libraries had at most a few vending machines for food and drink, but now that so many students spend so much time there every day, a new space has been created to meet their needs -- the campus library cafe. It's not a bustling cafeteria, or like the food court at the mall, but a small quiet place with places to sit down, and that mostly sells snacks.
I should mention at this point, for those who were in college before these changes (I remember them being under way during the early 2000s), that people don't go to the library to browse the stacks, check out books, or even do that much nose-to-the-grindstone work (college classes have never been easier). Instead, they go there for the multitude of "study areas," some wide-open, some more intimate, some with talking allowed, some quiet-only, some with a huge computer cluster, some where students bring their own laptops, and so on. In the 21st century, college kids are so not hormone-crazed that their main social destination is a great big study hall.
Despite the library's popularity, very little socializing actually takes place. You might if you already know the person, but it is not a place where people go to interact with people they don't know. If you sat down with a person or group that you don't know and tried to strike up a conversation, that would be awkward.
It's like the rise of the small house party, where the only ones in attendance are directly known to the hosts, or at most by one degree of separation. Further degrees of removal means you can't be sure they're trustworthy. Young people today just feel uncomfortable socializing with perfect strangers. The mass of students packed into the library might seem like an exception to small-only gatherings, but they're all cut off from each other. It's more like cells in a hive than a bustling crowd.
You do see people trying to make minimal contact with others around them, though only in the form of fleeting eye contact, and so only between the sexes. It's not an invitation to come over and talk to them, or an invitation to them to come on over to you. It's not even a strong expression of sexual interest or intent, since again it never goes any further than a quick glance.
It's more like an agreement to give their ego a little boost if they give yours a little boost. If they're out in a public space, they aren't in the most anti-social category -- they still feel some need for social recognition, appreciation, and belonging. Totally cut off from everyone else, they'd have no idea where they stood in the eyes of their peers. So, head on down to the library and see how many people are willing to make eye contact with you. Like, "I got a look -- thank god, I'm not ugly after all!" or "That chick over there just looked at me and didn't have a creeped-out look on her face -- thank god, I'm not the biggest loser after all!"
Because this contact is so superficial, only kids in the normal-to-"popular" range go there. (I use quotes because in anti-social times, no one is actually popular with a broad group. I mean those who would've been the popular kids back in the '80s.) You generally don't see the fat/ugly side of the bell curve, or even the nerdy/geeky side -- surprising for a library, eh? I'd guess that they tried out the library as hang-out, but noticed they didn't get any looks, or got creeped-out looks, and decided the hell with it, might as well stay in my room and play Xbox or have a Twilight and Ben & Jerry's marathon again.
And because this contact is so fleeting, they do it a lot more frequently. It's not like a huge party on the weekend where you get along well with strangers, some of whom may become new friends, or go all the way with someone you've had your eye on, or maybe even just met. The heady after-effects of that kind of socializing will last well into the next week. They're such a powerful signal to your brain, that it doesn't need reassurance of your normal-to-desirable status for awhile.
But split-second eye contact isn't such overwhelming evidence, so you need to be constantly scanning to see if others are trying to establish it with you. Girls especially seem to strut around frequently in a see-and-be-seen way, never quite sure if they're perceived as hot or just do-able. This self-doubt would be easily settled if they went to large parties once a week and got a sense of how many guys made a move on them. Way more convincing evidence than eye contact. But today, lots of unfamiliar guys making a move on you feels awkward and creepy. Or even if they had school dances -- how many date offers did you get? But if they don't want to go to those dances in the first place, they'll disappear, and that option for self-evaluation disappears too.
There's an obvious parallel to texting and posting on Facebook as a replacement for voice calls or in-person conversations. Receiving a single text gives you only minimal reassurance that you aren't ugly or a loser, so you need to keep receiving them -- and to return the favor for assuaging your own self-doubt, you need to keep sending them to those who sent them to you. Young people's social exchanges (hard to call them interactions) are thus part of their broader suite of OCD tendencies -- they're always teetering on the brink of self-doubt, and feel compelled to keep pushing some button to receive the little food pellet for their ego, again and again and again. They don't want the social equivalent of an intensely flavored, endorphin-releasing meal that would satisfy them for some time to come.
Without going into too much detail, you see the same general dynamics at the other major hang-outs for college kids and 20-somethings -- the coffee shop has been turned into a campus library computer cluster, for instance. Somehow supermarkets have become hang-out destinations (although you don't hang out there for very long), with some now offering their own little cafe area with seating, like the campus library cafe. Quiet small-scale food places are somewhat popular too, like Noodles & Company, Lunaberry, etc. Not "fast food," though -- too many cars constantly pulling around to the drive-thru. The gym is the only place where young people get physical in public these days, again with interaction among strangers being understood as forbidden.
For contrast, where don't you see college kids and 20-something hanging out much anymore? Well, the student union is more or less dead as the central, all-purpose hang-out, and so are the large green spaces around campus that social-seeking and sun-worshiping students would have flocked to back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. Food places that are more bustling and carnivalesque are gone too -- cafeterias, mall food courts, the automat. And all commercial stores where the purpose is to browse are also gone as hang-out spaces -- the bookstore, the record store, the video rental store.
As for physical activity, playing sports in public spaces is gone -- an informal game of football in a field, tennis courts for tennis or roller hockey, basketball courts, baseball / softball diamonds, kicking the soccer ball around, frisbee, hacky sack, etc. Public pools, mini golf courses, roller rinks, and dance floors have also been abandoned. If people do get physical in an open area, it's always jogging with earbuds jammed in their head -- don't interrupt me.
What distinguishes the spaces that have fallen from the ones that have risen seems to be how purposeful your visit is expected to be. If it's the kind of place that you visit for some specific, deliberate purpose, then that wasn't so popular in the '80s but has taken over now. If it's the kind of place where you visit with no plan or purpose in particular, that used to be popular but is now being reclaimed by the wilderness.
When people develop the cocooning, distrusting mindset, they don't want unfamiliar people to approach them. How can you manage that while still venturing out into public spaces? And how can you still take part in at least minimal social exchanges? Well, simple: hang out at a place where there's a very well understood expectation that strangers do no approach one another there. Why? Because everybody goes there for some specific purpose and is otherwise occupied -- studying, writing a paper, checking items off their grocery list, getting a quick bite to eat in between studying, meeting friends to catch up with them on important matters over lunch, and so on.
So, if someone unfamiliar approaches you, you can just give them that look or vibe of, "Uh, do I know you? This is a place for studying, you know..." In a bar or on the dance floor (other deserted spaces), you can't give someone a look like the very act of approaching you is violating an unspoken behavior code. So blowing a guy off in those spaces makes you feel more bitchy. But if you're sitting at a booth in the Whole Foods cafe area, you can give them a weird look -- after all, you're just taking a little rest while running errands, and they'd be interrupting you.
For the same reasons, you can't make any new same-sex friends at these places. If a bunch of guys are huddled around the TV in the union to watch the game, they can shoot the shit all day long even if they don't know each other. But plopping down across from some random dude at Starbucks, just to chat, would give off mad homo vibes. Striking up a conversation with a same-sex stranger is no problem at a record store or bookstore if you've got similar tastes, but you wouldn't think of doing so in a supermarket just because you both like Spanish cheeses.
This little investigation shows why it's worth paying attention not just to gross quantitative measures of sociability, like how much time to people spend outside their home, but to qualitative aspects as well. You might think that cocooning, while worse compared to the '80s, still isn't so bad -- look at all the kids hanging out in the library, in Starbucks, jogging around the park, etc. But they only choose these places because they can be assured that strangers won't approach them; they'll have plausible deniability because people don't go to those spaces to really interact. So, "I'm not being anti-social and awkward, I'm just here to conduct other business." Even when people do venture out into public areas these days, their lack of trust and social awkwardness still shows through.