April 1, 2013

Who avoids going to parks, and why?

One of the earliest things that tipped me off to the social-cultural differences between rising vs. falling-crime times was data from the National Park Service showing a steady decline in overnight park visits, and in recreational as opposed to other kinds of park visits. They took off during the '60s and wiggled around until the early '90s, falling afterward.

But they aren't going completely unused. Here are some patterns I've noticed about park use these days.

Teenagers and young adults are almost never there. Hanging out in public spaces has vanished off the map of activities that young people pursue. I mean, why have fun around new people when you could be jogging on one of your many virtual treadmills? Liking status updates, leaving prissy/bitchy comments, leveling up video game characters, checking your texts, etc.

Mostly the age groups are parents of children and their children. Adolescents and young adults probably feel too embarrassed to show up with their folks, while the children are happy to get out and do something for once. Children don't play with one another, only their family members. If Millennials weren't so awkward and dorky, they'd just show up on their own, without their parents. I remember the older Gen X kids doing that in the '80s -- totally normal. But what can you expect from kids who are uninterested in even getting a driver's license?

I detailed some of the places that young people do like to hang out at here, like the library. (Hold on to your hats, folks.) Continuing the ideas in that post, I think Millennials don't like hanging out at the park because they're so self-conscious about their image. What are all those strangers going to think if you're not wearing the right brand of earbuds as you block out the outside world? And forget hanging out with your shirt off -- unless you've leveled yourself up to swole hulk status, you'd be too pathetic for everyone else to see. Or whatever the equivalent is for girls -- your legs wouldn't look like the Victoria's Secret models.

Back in the '80s, no one gave a second thought to taking off that uncomfortable shirt during a warm or hot afternoon. Children playing outside, teenagers socializing at the park, grown men doing yard work. Millennials really are more psychologically paralyzed about how strangers will evaluate their body. Seems to go along with their perfectionism, like how OCD people wouldn't have anyone over unless the house looked 100% spotless. Anything less is shameful.

And it's not as though they're responding thoughtfully to actual evaluations from others. Like if you were fat and gross and took your shirt off, and everyone looked at you weird, and you decided not to do so in the future. They're not even putting themselves out there in the first place. They're over-protecting themselves from hypothetical -- imaginary -- evaluations, not responding to real-life feedback from others. Just like how they rarely talk to, flirt with, or ask out someone of the opposite sex -- fear of potential rejection.

Don't mean to always be ragging on the neo-Silent Generation, but they do show the most striking changes from their counterparts of just 20 years ago. I can't help noticing all this stuff because they're not that much younger than my generation, yet they seem to come from another planet.

Moving into the mid-to-late 20-somethings (the early Millennials), you don't see too many of them either. They're generally doing something in isolation, like jogging laps or pretending to be social by sitting in a public area, though with earbuds jammed in their head and staring down at some screen the whole time. They've already turned coffee shops into campus computer clusters, so why not the park? Yep, even parks are free wi-fi zones nowadays.

Adults without children are not as conspicuously absent as adolescents, but still under-represented. You hardly ever see senior citizens either. They used to be everywhere -- the park, the mall (all day, every day), the cafeterias, interacting with schoolchildren through partnerships with the local senior center. Now old people are totally cut off from the rest of society. Public spaces are supposed to bring together all generations, and not seeing old people at the park limits its communal feel.

The exceptions in these age groups, when they aren't odd individuals, tend to be couples, rather than peer groups. A famous eye-opening study detailed the drastic decline in the number of friends that people have, comparing 1985 to 2004 in the General Social Survey. Here, a "friend" is someone who you discuss important matters with. Aside from the quantitative drop in number of friends, there was a qualitative shift away from peers and toward family members and spouses / partners.

That change stands out very loudly at the park. There are only a handful of peer groups playing sports, and the occasional group of attention whores doing wacky-zany activities. Even among these few groups, they're rarely socializing, kicking back, hanging out. And then there are those engaged in clearly isolated activities (jogging laps, etc.).

So, the park now mostly belongs to families and potential families. There's partner-partner interaction, and parent-child interaction, but hardly anything else. Certainly very little family-family interaction. Not with helicopter parents. Your kid is a potential corruptor of all the years of hard work they've put into perfectly programming their own kid. There are occasional superficial exchanges between family units, but actually making new friends and acquaintances -- um, that would be kind of creepy.

When we took my nephew to Chuck E. Cheese's over Christmas vacation, I felt the exact same vibe. The park in the 21st century is a great big McDonalds Playland, ringed by a treadmill for the childless not-so-youngsters. It used to include people from all walks of life, like the pool scenes from The Sandlot (set in the early '60s) or the mall scenes from Saved by the Bell (in the early '90s). But when nobody trusts anybody else, they'll only venture out into public spaces with their kin or their partners. Paranoia and awkwardness are simply too pervasive to allow solid peer groups to form.


  1. I was reading an interesting paper (can't find a link now) talking about presentation of the self and sociability in East Asian and European cultures.

    They described the typical phenomenon where East Asian societies don't really have individuals with a strong sense of self in terms of permanent traits (I'm a positive person, I'm a smart person, I like golf, etc), thinking more in terms of meeting roles that are given to them by society and their relationships (I'm x's daughter, I'm the boss of X, etc).

    It also stated that they (East Asians) also don't see relationships as being mediated by sharing similar / positive qualities or that people should seek out similar / positive / complementary people and forge relationship groups. Rather they're expected form friendships based more on simple proximity, and then maintain that relationship - so people are friends simply because they are in the same class, business, village, etc, not because they feel they have qualities which complement one another or are in common.

    On the one hand, they stated (and apparently this is supported by Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions), this leads to an reduced empathy, social competence and team feeling relative to the West - people don't choose one another based on having things in common or complementary qualities, and this inhibits close bonding (of a positive kind and also a negative "Mean Girls" cliquey kind). Also people have less self awareness, because they are not really thinking about the qualities of the self, and this somewhat inhibits understanding of others.

    On the other hand, people apparently do not try to manage their image with the expectation of crafting an appealing image to other people that will encourage others to socialize with them. So long as they meet their role duties (being a good student, son, etc), they're good, and people are generally tolerant of other foibles, but they aren't a reason to socialize together or to separate themselves from another. They're not "self conscious" about individual personal qualities or whether those are attractive (because they don't need to be), only about how well they conform to a social role.

    The theory (although I think this may be from another paper) is also that the phenomenon of hikikomori-ism (a severe form of social isolation more frequent than any comparable Western form) is a collision of the Western "discovering my true self and marketing myself and my personality to find my soul mates" affiliation model (brought in by globalizing and modernizing changes) with an Eastern personality (for cultural or genetic reasons) which is an inadequate for that purpose (and "evolved" in one sense or another to serve another model). One plank in defense of this is that the Japanese are probably more individualistically sociable than other Asians, but also have more hikikomor-ism.

    I wonder if this might help explain some of the differences between the US and Europe and Asia, why the malls and parks and arcades stay open in those regions during (as in Japan) continual falls in violence (particularly controlled for the fact that Asia and Europe are aging).

    That is, in Asia and Europe, relative to the US, social affiliation and sense of self is not as much about crafting or discovering an appealing personality and meeting people with similar personalities. So there is less appeal to both small groups and the internet, which both characterized by a low uncertainty about meeting a person who may clash with your sense of self, and where it is easier to control your image, and where there is no clear established behavior role to conform to.

  2. Seems like East Asians have a higher level of self-monitoring and being aware of their own internal psychological states.

    They're comparing what they see to a different standard than Westerners do, but the comparison process itself seems a lot more constant and intense in Asians. Westerners are more worry-free and easygoing.

    Millennials are about 80% Asian. They rarely get laid but are more frequent consumers of porn, and weird porn at that (sado-masochistic, girl takes full control, etc.). Their aesthetics lean toward monochrome, desaturated, and unornamented (the Asian minimalism of Apple etc.). They're constantly plugged into video games.

    They rarely get into fights or even heated debates, which offer frequent cooling-down phases, preferring instead to stew in bitterness for awhile and then occasionally suffer a total breakdown.

    Socially awkward, anti-social, etc. too.

    The self-monitoring thing is one of the most striking similarities, though again they compare themselves to different standards. Having such a blinding spotlight in your own mind is so unlike the carefree Western norm.

  3. The Asian breakdown thing has a Nassim Taleb angle to it -- the more you suppress volatility, the larger the eventual blow-up will be.

    If you've been friends with Millennials, or just been around them frequently enough to overhear / witness their behavior, you're struck by how fragile they are to total meltdowns.

    Most of the time they've got that Asian mask of phony blankness, when they're really just bottling it all up. Asians/Millennials aren't like bipolar -- that's more of a Booomer / Gen X / Gen Y thing. As in, equal amounts of time spent in manic and depressive states. More like, feigned equanimity for 99% of the time, and nuclear meltdown the other 1%.

  4. Seems like East Asians have a higher level of self-monitoring and being aware of their own internal psychological states.

    Seems possible, but I can't really call it either way. Different kind of self awareness though. Less about being a person with clear and permanent traits over time and a life narrative, more on relationships and current states. And I would have thought that and the different social bonding with less image crafting and personality based bonding and more situational and obligatory bonding would've led to a bit room for the solitary. And their arcades and malls do stay open. Thanks for giving it some though though.

    Their aesthetics lean toward monochrome, desaturated, and unornamented

    Well, Korean pop is primary colored brightness, as are Japanese videogames (Sonic the Hedgehog etc) and animation (relative to the Western norm, all about that blue hair). Asian cities are pretty cluttered in practice - though funnily enough all the ornamented and elaborated detailed Asian stuff I can think of tends to be illustration of sci-fi technology, kind of a technofetishist thing. Arts in ink (popular in Asia) certainly do not have vibrant color, not like a stained glass aesthetic, and I do think boring more than gaudy when I think of Asian clothing.

    They rarely get laid

    Btw, are you sure about the less sex thing? The sexfreq variable on the GSS, for 18-30 year olds, doesn't have any cross over or reduction in the 1989-1994 period, or later on even - just stays at around 3.5 for the whole sample for the whole 1989-2012 period. It's the same story for only 18-20 year olds. The sex partners in last year variable (partners) and last five years (partnrs5) for the same period are the same as well, with no change, (surprisingly to me, since I'd expect more intro people to meet new sex partners less often).

    Maybe '88 is too late (shame it doesn't reach back any earlier), and a personality / preference shift had already begun?

  5. The best source for what's up with young people is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the CDC every other year since 1991. Young people are rare in the GSS because they go after everyone, but the YRBS focuses only on high school kids.

    There was another one a year or so ago... national survey on family formation, or something. It confirmed the YRBS findings. Young people these days just aren't as active as they used to be. Not substituting one type of activity for another, just less activity in general.

    As for the GSS:


    Young married couples have less frequent sex than in the late '80s.

    "The rarely group was under 5% in 1989-'90, and rose to 13% by 2010. The frequently group was at or above 50% in '89-'90, and fell to 38% by 2010. The moderately group shows no real change."

  6. As for the GSS:


    Interesting. When I look at comparison of means, that's about a quarter of a standard deviation reduction, modeled as a linear trend line. Although married Whites aged 18-35 must be a pretty small sample if all people aged 18-30 is a small sample itself.

    The best source for what's up with young people is the Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the CDC every other year since 1991

    Thanks. I had a quick look at the "Ever had sexual intercourse" data broken down by Grade. Although there is difference in slope between Grades, with the 9th Grade showing a slope of change between 1991 to 2011 that's about 1.5x the 12th Grade slope (with Grade 10 and 11 intermediate), they all trend in same direction, so it seems pretty plausible that this difference would continue to adulthood in the Millennials. With this data its a bit harder to get a feel for how large the change is as a percentage of normal population variation, compared to the GSS.

  7. Do you think asians are more prone to meltdowns? There seem to be a lot more videos (whether on WorldStarHipHop or elsehwere) of blacks doing that.

    The bit about numbers of friends reminded me of Tyler Cowen on Russian vs American friendship.

  8. First anonymous person,

    Can you find that link? The study sounds interesting.

  9. TGGP,

    I think they mean mental breakdowns.

    Not, eh, physical breakdowns.

  10. 8:39 Anon - Looking back at my sources I think I may have mentally inserted more of the information about Asian self construals into the first paper I discussed, where they are more referred to in passing and discussed elsewhere in the lit. Stil -

    www.ehu.es/pswparod/pdf/articulos/fernandez1801.pdf - Oyserman et al’s (2002) meta-analysis confirmed that individualist North Americans score lower than other samples on scales emphasizing a sense of duty towards the in-group. However, when scales include items related to sense of belonging and seeking other people’s advice, North Americans report higher scores. ... Hofstede (2001) argues, in contractual and individualistic societies social relationships are less ascribed or socially predetermined and people have a stronger need to acquire friends. In sum, individualists are more socially attuned and relationally skilled than collectivists (Hofstede, 2001)...In relation to the emphasis on internal attributes and a less contextualised self, studies do not confirm that individualistic cultures reinforce low self-monitoring or that collectivist ones reinforce the contextualised self. In fact, Anglo-Saxon respondents scored higher on self-monitoring than Asian respondents. Collectivist persons rely on norms and roles when deciding how to behave and not on what they perceive that other people think and feel, and this explains why they are low in self-monitoring

    http://sciencelinks.jp/content/view/1276/33/ - "What we have understood from a series of comparative studies in cultural psychology is that the Japanese culture is highly relationship-oriented and interdependent. Self-growth and development of interpersonal relationships are “based on situations.” Few people think that they “chose” their friends, but rather that they happened to share a variety of same situations started from being in the same class, for example, and thus confirmed the relationship. In Japan, through feeling that they are getting emotional support (emotional encouragement and support), people sense a stronger link with people around them, and their sense of happiness tends to rise. In contrast, in North American culture where individuality is strong, feelings of self-respect are seen as important. One of the reasons why Americans try to show that they are “better than the average person” is because in a fluid society, friends and partners are the “choose and be chosen,” and anyone who does not self-promote risks getting cut off from social relationships."

    (Of course, North Americans don't actually score low on empathy scales or support seeking scales compared to East Asians, e.g. http://kidstudiescentre.com/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=ry%2BMBcZvWrE%3D&tabid=56)

    There's a lot more stuff supporting the idea of Asian groups (Japanese tend to be the studied population, but I don't think it's unique to them) have a situation dependent and role dependent approach to the self construal and friendships (roles vs traits and situational friendships vs choice in friends seems like the widest differences between the US and Asian societies, while close relationships tend to have some importance).

    For example, http://psp.sagepub.com/content/27/1/90.abstract - This study investigated whether self-concepts that arise from participation in interdependent cultural contexts, in this case the self-concepts of Japanese students, will be relatively more sensitive to situational variation than will self-concepts that arise in independent cultural contexts, in this case the self-concepts of U.S. college students .... As predicted, the situation had a greater influence on the self-descriptions of the Japanese participants than on the Americans’ self-descriptions"

    You could google "interdependent" "self construal" "Japan" if you are interested.

  11. Awesome, anonymous.

    Thank you.


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