Social network changes and life events across the life span: a meta-analysis

Psychol Bull. 2013 Jan;139(1):53-80. doi: 10.1037/a0028601. Epub 2012 May 28.


For researchers and practitioners interested in social relationships, the question remains as to how large social networks typically are, and how their size and composition change across adulthood. On the basis of predictions of socioemotional selectivity theory and social convoy theory, we conducted a meta-analysis on age-related social network changes and the effects of life events on social networks using 277 studies with 177,635 participants from adolescence to old age. Cross-sectional as well as longitudinal studies consistently showed that (a) the global social network increased up until young adulthood and then decreased steadily, (b) both the personal network and the friendship network decreased throughout adulthood, (c) the family network was stable in size from adolescence to old age, and (d) other networks with coworkers or neighbors were important only in specific age ranges. Studies focusing on life events that occur at specific ages, such as transition to parenthood, job entry, or widowhood, demonstrated network changes similar to such age-related network changes. Moderator analyses detected that the type of network assessment affected the reported size of global, personal, and family networks. Period effects on network sizes occurred for personal and friendship networks, which have decreased in size over the last 35 years. Together the findings are consistent with the view that a portion of normative, age-related social network changes are due to normative, age-related life events. We discuss how these patterns of normative social network development inform research in social, evolutionary, cultural, and personality psychology.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Family / psychology
  • Friends / psychology
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Middle Aged
  • Social Support*
  • Young Adult