Personal networks and associations with psychological distress among young and older adults

Soc Sci Med. 2020 Feb:246:112714. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2019.112714. Epub 2019 Dec 6.


Objective: The aim of the study was to provide new tests of the argument that aspects of personal networks affect psychological distress and moderate the effects of negative life events, leveraging new, rich data on two different cohorts.

Method: The UCNets project measured psychological distress, life events, and various dimensions of personal networks for 673 50- to 70-year old adults and 485 21- to 30-year old adults. The project used stratified random address based sampling for all the older adults. Such sampling, supplemented with Facebook advertisement and referral sampling, yielded the young adult sample. Networks were measured using several name-eliciting questions and several name descriptors.

Results: The findings differed for younger versus older adults. Among young adults, personal network characteristics were not directly associated with, nor did they moderate the effect of negative life events on psychological distress. Unlike younger adults, the presence of supportive network ties, including social companions and emergency helpers, were directly associated with lower distress among older adults, while difficult and demanding ties as well as advisors were directly associated with higher distress. There was limited evidence of buffering among older adults, albeit through the presence of difficult and demanding ties.

Conclusions: In the current sample, network exchange roles (i.e., specific types of network support and burden) were associated with psychological distress among older adults while other characteristics of the network, including size, multiplexity, and social participation were not. Further, network support may be best positioned to have direct, as opposed to buffering, effects on psychological well-being.

Keywords: Buffering; Life course; Mental health; Psychological distress; Social networks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychological Distress*
  • Social Networking
  • Social Participation
  • Social Support*
  • Stress, Psychological* / epidemiology
  • Young Adult