15. Family social network

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Why is the family social network important?

Family social network broadly refers to a child’s social network comprising their immediate family, as well as the family’s broader social network. The quality of the relationships and interactions in a child’s social environment affects a child’s health, development and wellbeing. Families with rich 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. Support provided by social institutions and from formal and informal social networks is important to healthy development and overall child wellbeing (Ferguson 2006; Runyan et al. 1998; Sheldon 2002; Waters et al. 2002; Wise 2003; Zubrick et al. 2008).

Social support and sharing experiences with other parents can support better parenting and result in improved outcomes for children, including decreasing the likelihood that children drop out of school or commit delinquent acts, improving outcomes for youth in finishing school and gaining employment, improving positive behavioural outcomes for at-risk preschool children and lowering levels of depression in at-risk teens (Ferguson 2006).

Strong family relationships and supportive neighbourhoods can also act as a protective factor against socioeconomic disadvantage and buffer the effects of other risk factors (Zwi & Henry 2005). Conversely, living in isolation from extended family networks and support services is associated with less effective parenting behaviours and practices and poorer parental mental health, which are associated with poorer health, development and wellbeing outcomes for children (Wise 2003; Zubrick et al. 2008).

Does the use of the family social network vary across population groups?

In the ABS General Social Survey 2014, the proportion of parents or guardians who ‘somewhat agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ with being able to get help when needed (i.e. the rate of use of the family social network) was slightly higher for those with younger children (88% for children 0-4 years of age) relative to older children (87% for 5-14 years of age). The data also showed that more Australian-born parents/guardians (88%) felt that they could get help when needed compared with parents/guardians born overseas (85%).

Family social networks are affected by socioeconomic position, with lowest two quintiles reporting that 85% agreed or strongly agreed with being able to get help when needed, compared to 88% of the top three quintiles. The largest observed difference in the rate of those who felt that they could get help when needed is associated with family type — one-parent, one-family households were less likely to agree that they could get help when needed (81%), compared with 88% of couples in a one-family household. However, this pattern is not consistent across the states and territories — one-parent, one-family households felt that they could get help when needed at a higher rate than couples in a one-family household in South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

Has there been a change over time?

No trend data are available.


In consultation with experts and through a literature review, 9 potential indicators were identified by the AIHW for the Family social network priority area. More information on the consultation outcomes can be found in the AIHW’s paper on this issue (AIHW 2010). Subsequent consultation produced agreement that ‘the proportion of children aged 0-12 years whose parent or guardian was usually able to get help when needed’ is the most suitable indicator. Since the publication of the Headline Indicators for children’s health, development and wellbeing 2011 (AIHW 2011) report, a new question has been added to the General Social Survey by the ABS.

In the new question in the General Social Survey, there are five response codes in a Likert scale, ranging from ‘Strongly agree’ to ‘Strongly disagree’. The first two categories can both be considered affirmative responses to the question and are used in the measure.


  • AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) 2010. Family social network: development of a Children’s Headline Indicator. Cat. no. PHE 131. Canberra: AIHW.
  • AIHW 2011. Headline Indicators for children’s health, development and wellbeing 2011. Cat. no. PHE  144. Canberra: AIHW.
  • Ferguson KM 2006. Social capital and children’s wellbeing: a critical synthesis of the international social capital literature. International Journal of Social Welfare 15(1):2–18.
  • Sheldon SB 2002. Parents’ social networks and beliefs as predictors of parent involvement. The Elementary School Journal 102(4):301–16.
  • Waters E, Goldfeld S & Hopkins S 2002. Indicators for child health, development and wellbeing. A systematic review of the literature and recommendations for population monitoring. Melbourne: Centre for Community Child Health and Department of Paediatrics, University of Melbourne.
  • Wise S 2003. Family structure, child outcome and environmental mediators: an overview of the Development in Diverse Families Study. Research paper no. 30. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
  • Zubrick S, Smith GJ, Nicholson J, Sanson A & Jackiewicz T 2008. Parenting and families in Australia. Social policy research paper 34. Canberra: Australian Government Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.
  • Zwi KJ & Henry RL 2005. Children in Australian society. Medical Journal of Australia 183(3):154–62.