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What Makes a "Networked" Individual?

Singles may naturally adapt to the demand of diversified social networks.

Key points

  • “Networked individualism” describes the increasing emphasis on individuals’ personal networks as the cornerstone of their social lives.
  • Research shows that singles may be happier because of the time they can afford to give to other people.
  • The emergence of networked individualism may give singles an added advantage in seeking happiness.
 clark cruz/Pexels
Source: clark cruz/Pexels

The focus point of the social life was once the household, but it is increasingly apparent that there has been a shift toward "personal networking units" as a way of organizing one’s life. This shift has been referred to as “networked individualism” and describes the increasing emphasis on individuals’ personal networks as the cornerstone of their social lives, rather than the household unit.

Indeed, happy singles have the ability to spend time in solitude and benefit from being alone without experiencing excessive loneliness. But they are also more likely to fill their social calendars, spend time with others, and be generous with their time. Given that peer support and being generous and helpful are associated with better emotional well-being and mental health,1singles may be happier because of the time they can afford to give to other people.

The social sphere in which singles give—and therefore receive—the most in comparison to married people is the time they spend with their family. Those who argue that singles are disadvantaged in this respect since they do not have their own families refer to the fact they do not have partners or children. But they omit the reality that singles have nuclear families where they originated with siblings, parents, and other relatives.

Scholars and bureaucrats now note that family need not include direct relatives, children, or two people in a sexual-romantic relationship. Therefore, the distinguishing factor of singles with no children from traditional families is that one person only stands at the center of the unit. Beyond asking who is obligated to help in the family unit, we should investigate who is actually offering and benefiting from help.

Singles are more likely to care for those who cannot look after themselves, socialize and raise the young of others, enjoy shared experiences that deepen a sense of identity, and benefit from emotional, practical, and material support.2

Specifically, after marriage, men may become less fiscally generous to their friends and relatives,3which is especially remarkable since separate studies have indicated that single men earn less than married men.4 Singles, in fact, may share and benefit from their family units—however they may appear—more than individuals in traditional family units.

Indeed, the heavy expectation placed by members of traditional family units can cause people to turn inward and expect undivided attention from one another, reducing the resources available for others. This is why the contemporary institution of family is often referred to as greedy marriage.5 Singles do not experience this phenomenon, and therefore may be more poised to benefit and derive benefits from their families.

Another way in which singles differ from coupled individuals in this respect is in their levels of dependency. People who have partners, and more so those with children, are frequently assumed to be better off since, in the event of a challenging circumstance such as illness or immobility, there are people available who feel obligated to step in to help.

However, in many cases, they may end up being worse off. It is increasingly common for grown children to be emotionally or geographically distant from their parents, meaning that their role in support is diminishing. There are benefits to having a partner and children nearby, such as reduced psychological distress when the family is available.6 Yet these benefits are not imparted, and indeed can be even undermined, in situations where the parents feel overly dependent on their children.

Widowers with children, who have for much of their adult lives focussed their social circles around the core family unit, are prone to ending up with a small number of friends and relatives available for help and company. On the other hand, singles who have spent their lives cultivating rich and diverse social networks are not nearly as prone to this issue, and research is beginning to suggest that they are more emotionally resilient and happier than widows or those who are divorced. They are more likely to avoid a situation of having limited personal communities and restricted inner circles of friends, which are powerful causes of psychological distress, especially in older age.

The Networked Individual

In order to explain why singles may be more resilient and happier in older age, it is useful to note that the role that family can play in improving the welfare of people’s lives is similar, but the contemporary understanding and definition of family has caused many to overlook the reality that singles do, in fact, often have networking units that act very similarly to families.7

This phenomenon has been facilitated by the growing numbers of singles, the individualization at the global level, and the increasingly ubiquitous connectivity that allows people to make social arrangements more independently.8

The emergence of networked individualism may give singles an added advantage in seeking happiness, as they adapt more quickly and naturally to a reality that demands diversified social networks and places less emphasis on the centrality of the family unit. It would therefore seem that with time, married individuals may be more exposed to the risks of loneliness, while singles may be adapting to and even flourishing in a new reality, ultimately leading to increased happiness.


1. Phyllis Solomon, 'Peer Support/Peer Provided Services Underlying Processes, Benefits, and Critical Ingredients', Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 27 (2004), 392.

2. Bella DePaulo, 'Who Is Your Family If You Are Single with No Kids?', in Living Single (Psychology Today, 2011).

3. ———, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After (New York: Macmillan, 2007).

4. ———, Singlism: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How to Stop It (Charleston, SC: DoubleDoor Books, 2011).

5. Naomi Gerstel, and Natalia Sarkisian, 'Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy', Contexts, 5 (2006), 16-21.

6. Jung-Hwa Ha, and Deborah Carr, 'The Effect of Parent-Child Geographic Proximity on Widowed Parents’ Psychological Adjustment and Social Integration', Research on Aging, 27 (2005), 578-610.

7. Barry Wellman, 'The Development of Social Network Analysis: A Study in the Sociology of Science', Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews, 37 (2008), 221-22; ———, 'The Network Is Personal: Introduction to a Special Issue of Social Networks', Social networks, 29 (2007), 349-56.

8. ———, 'Networked Individualism: How the Personalized Internet, Ubiquitous Connectivity, and the Turn to Social Networks Can Affect Learning Analytics', in Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (ACM, 2012), pp. 1-1.

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