Is Quality Better Than Quantity in Social Relationships?

New research examines how social networks change over time.

Posted Nov 25, 2019

Though the term social network can mean the network of friends, family, and neighbors we deal with on a regular basis, it can be much more than that. Many people describing their own social networks may also include the people they interact with online, professional contacts, old classmates, or casual acquaintances.

Along with these informal social networks, there are also formal support networks in place to help people in need. These networks include health care professionals, volunteers, charity workers, or anyone else who could be counted on to provide emotional or physical support when needed. This is why having such networks in place can be an essential part of preserving our mental and emotional health.

But, as we grow older, the size of these networks often shrinks over time, whether because of lost contact with old friends, changing financial circumstances, retirement, illness, or death. While we may have a solid core of family members and close friends, many contacts we view as less important often fall by the wayside. In fact, according to Laura Cartensen's Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, we may deliberately downsize our social networks to only a few close friends or family members as a way of simplifying our lives and preserving health and well-being in old age.  

For older adults especially, it's the quality of social relationships rather than quantity that is especially important. In a 2006 nationwide study of American adults over the age of 60, people with a network of close family members and friends were least prone to depressive symptoms. But depression is just one of the health concerns that can be linked to social isolation. For seniors, in particular, the health risks associated with social isolation and loneliness cannot be underestimated. Research has consistently shown that seniors feeling isolated are prone to a wide range of medical conditions including cardiovascular disease and stroke, poor sleep quality, harmful health behaviors, more rapid functional decline, and reduced life expectancy.  

A new study published in the journal Psychology and Aging provides some important insights into social networks and how they can change over time. 

For this study, a team of researchers led by Wändi Bruine de Bruin of the University of Leeds used participants from the RAND American Life Panel, a nationally representative panel of more than 6,000 American participants regularly interviewed over the internet. Bruine de Bruin and her co-researchers conducted two surveys examining different aspects of social networks and well-being. In the first survey, 496 Panel participants were questioned about social networks, including number of close friends, family members, and neighbors, they had regular real-life or online contact with, as well as "peripheral others" (e.g., coworkers, school or childhood, and relations, people who provide a service, etc.). Of the participants of this first survey, 298 also took part in the second survey, which focused on mental and physical health, including social satisfaction and well-being.  

As expected, older adults had small social support networks, even when factors such as employment status, health, and financial status were taken into account. Though there was a significant overlap across different age groups, the greatest difference in network size was between older adults and people under the age of 30. This seemed mostly due to changes in the number of "peripheral others," though the number of family members people had regular contact with also dropped sharply over time. There was no difference between age groups in the number of close friends.

Despite changing social networks, older adults reported significantly greater well-being than younger participants, though social satisfaction didn't seem related to age. For all age groups, however, people reporting more close friends showed greater social satisfaction and greater well-being overall. The number of family members, neighbors, and "peripheral others" didn't seem to have a similar impact, however.  

Overall, the results of these two surveys confirmed earlier studies showing that young people had larger social networks than older adults, though the number of close friends people had changed little over time. Also, while young people had larger networks, this was mostly due to the larger number of "peripheral others" in their networks. While it's tempting to attribute these larger networks that young people have to the rise of online social networking sites, researchers reported similar results in earlier studies carried out in the pre-Internet era. 

While our life circumstances will change significantly over time, quality seems far more important than quantity when it comes to having a network of close friends and confidantes. For older adults, these changing circumstances will likely mean a drop in social network size as they retire from their jobs (losing contact with coworkers), move into a retirement home (and have less contact with former neighbors and acquaintances), or simply lack the time and energy needed to maintain large social networks.  

Given the change in social needs that occur as we grow older, older adults who are feeling isolated and alone may need different solutions than what might work in younger adults. That means that, rather than helping seniors find new friends, it might be more practical to help them maintain existing friendships by dealing with mobility issues or encouraging them to renew these contacts online (and providing training as needed). For young adults and adolescents, on the other hand, encouraging them to focus on quality rather than quantity may yield important dividends, even in dealing with online contacts (i.e., relying on fewer memes and more honest communication). For lonely adults of all ages, there is also the option of counseling to overcome social problems that might prevent true intimacy, not to mention the feelings of inadequacy provoked by "popular" people with large social networks.

References

Bruine de Bruin, W., Parker, A. M., & Strough, J. (2019). Age differences in reported social networks and well-being. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/pag0000415