Social networks

Key findings

  • Data from Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) in 2016 estimated that 97% of children had someone to talk to if they have a problem.
  • Parents whose children need or use additional care or services have less social support compared with other parents—54% have support available most or all of the time compared with 63% of other parents.
  • According to the 2014 ABS General Social Survey (GSS), most (96%) respondents aged 18 and over living in households with children aged 0–14 felt they were able to get support in times of crisis.

Social networks provide people with a sense of connection and can be a source of support both generally and in times of need. They consist of relationships and contacts developed through social interactions and can be developed face-to-face or through another medium such as the telephone or the Internet. For most children, their family forms the foundation of their social network, but friends and teachers play a progressively important role as children get older (Korkiamaki & Ellonen 2008). Increasingly, children are using social media and other digital technologies to facilitate the development of their social networks (Allen et al. 2014; Office of the eSafety Commissioner 2018)

The quality of a child’s social network can impact their health, development and overall wellbeing (Klocke & Stadtmüller 2019). For children, the benefits of social networks include:

  • positive mental health and behavioural outcomes in childhood and later life
  • reduced school dropout rates
  • increased likelihood of gaining meaningful employment (Croninger & Lee 2001; Ferguson 2006; Klocke & Stadtmüller 2019; Korkiamaki & Ellonen 2008).

For children, it is not just their personal social networks that can impact their wellbeing, but also those of their family. Families with strong social networks have been found to have increased access to information, material resources, and friends and neighbours to assist them in managing their daily lives and problems (Marshall et al. 2001; Armstrong et al. 2005; Heaney & Israel 2008). Having someone to rely on in an emergency is an important safety net, especially for families with children.

For school-aged children, the school environment plays a key role in the quality of social networks (Korkiamaki & Ellonen 2008). Children who have more friends are more likely to be self-confident, have good social and emotional skills and are more likely to perform better at school (DSS 2015). A strong social network at school is likely to lead to a sense of belonging which has been associated with higher reading achievement (see Education).

National representative data on children’s perspectives of their social networks is limited with 1 self-reported measure of social support included in this section. This section predominately focuses on the self-reported perceptions of the type of social networks available from the perspective of adults who live in households with children aged 0–14 (Box 1).

Box 1: Measuring social networks

The ABS GSS measures social networks in terms of social contact and support in times of crisis. Results for respondents (aged 18 and over) living in households with at least 1 child aged 0–14 are reported here.

The LSAC measures social networks in terms of support available to both the child and their primary parent (the parent who knows the child best). Children are asked directly who they would talk to if they had a problem and were able to select multiple responses.

The primary parent was asked a series of questions to form a social support scale to measure how often different types of support are available to parents. The social support scale is the average of 15 questions designed to measure the availability of:

  • emotional or informational support
  • tangible support
  • affectionate support
  • positive social interaction
  • total social support.

Social connection

Social isolation and loneliness can be harmful to mental and physical health. Having regular contact with (or connecting to) people, especially with family and friends, is an important component of having a strong or positive social network. Living in isolation, especially from extended family networks and support services, has been associated with less effective parenting behaviours and practices and poorer parental mental health, which are, in turn, associated with poorer health, development and wellbeing outcomes for children (Wise 2003; Zubrick et al. 2008).

According to the ABS 2014 GSS, 77% of respondents (aged 18 and over) living in households with at least 1 child aged 0–14 had face-to-face contact with family or friends living outside their household at least once a week. This increased to 94% for non-face-to-face contact, such as phone or video calls, emails, or text messages at least once a week. This is in line with research that suggests more and more people are turning to non-traditional forms of social connection as a way of expanding or better maintaining their social networks (Collin et al. 2011; Office of the esafety Commissioner 2018).

Access to social support

Being able to get support or help when needed is a good indicator of the quality of the strength of social networks (AIHW 2010, 2012).

For children, social support is often measured by whether they felt they had someone they could talk to about their problems (AIHW 2012).

For adults, social support is often broader, including more tangible support such as financial or physical assistance. Having access to a broad range of social supports can support better parenting and result in improved outcomes for children, including:

  • positive behavioural outcomes
  • decreased likelihood of dropping out of school
  • decreased likelihood of becoming involved in delinquent behaviour
  • lower levels of depression in at-risk teens (Ferguson 2006; Korkiamaki & Ellonen 2008).

97% of children had someone to talk to if they have a problem

It is estimated using data from LSAC in 2016 that most children (97% or around 223,000) aged 12–13 had a least 1 person they could talk to if they had a problem. Around 88% (or 202, 000) would talk to their mum and/or dad, with more likely to talk to their mum than their dad (86% compared with 64%). Children were also likely to talk to a friend (68%) if they had a problem (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Proportion of children aged 12–13 who would talk to someone if they had a problem, by person they would talk to, 2016

Note: Children may choose to speak to more than 1 person so totals do not add to 100%.

Chart: AIHW. Source: AIHW analysis of the LSAC.

Parents whose children need or use additional care or services have less social support

It is estimated using data from LSAC in 2016 that 62% of (or 142, 000) primary parents said they have social support most or all the time. Just over 2% said they had no social support.

Primary parents of children who need or use more medical care, mental health or educational services than is usual for most children of the same age were less likely to have support available most or all of the time compared with other primary parents (54% compared with 63%) (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Proportion of primary parents of children aged 12–13 who have social support available most or all of the time, by type of social support and whether children need or use more services than usual, 2016

This column chart shows that a lower proportion of primary parents who have children that need more support than usual had social support available to them most or all of the time they needed it, compared with parents with children who do not need more services than usual. The types of social support included are emotional or informational support, tangible support, affectionate support and positive social interaction.

Chart: AIHW. Source: AIHW analysis of the LSAC.

Most adults living with a child aged 0-14 can get support in times of crisis

According to the 2014 GSS, most (96%) respondents aged 18 and over living in households with children aged 0–14 felt they were able to get support in times of crisis. Fewer (87%) somewhat agreed or strongly agreed that they could find someone to help when needed (not necessarily a crisis).

There was very little difference in availability of support in times of crisis between population groups.

4 in 5 adults living with a child aged 0-14 get support from a family member in times of crisis

The 2014 GSS found that respondents living in households with children aged 0–14 had sources for support, including:

  • family members
  • friends
  • neighbours
  • work colleagues
  • community, charity or religious organisations
  • local council or other government services
  • health, legal or financial professionals.

Family members and friends were the most commonly reported source of support (82% and 71%, respectively). Very few (4%) reported they had no source of support (consistent with the percentage of people who indicated they were able to get support in times of crisis).

Data limitations and development opportunities

Children are increasingly using digital technology to form social networks (Office of the eSafety Commissioner 2018; O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson 2011; Wilson 2016). This is supported by the 2016 Digital Participation survey which found that more than one-third (34%) of participants aged 8–13 used social media (Office of the eSafety Commissioner 2016). More detailed analysis of children’s engagement in digital social networks, including the quality of these networks and/or if they impact social networks formed in more traditional ways, would be informative.

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