Social Networks Change with the Seasons of Life

Individuals who have a lifelong friend are fortunate. Even though many people can remember friends from childhood or early adulthood, it is rare that those friendships are maintained throughout the lifespan. Why social networks shift and change was the question asked by Cornelia Wrzus of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany in a recent study. Wrzus wanted to know exactly how and why circles of friends, acquaintances, family members, and other alliances grow and shrink during different phases in one’s life, and whether specific life events influenced those changes. For her study, Wrzus examined over 275 existing studies involving nearly 180,000 participants. The data she collected was based on social networks from adolescence through adulthood and into the later years of life. She looked at how non-normative life events and normative life events affected the social networks of the participants and also how age factored into the network sizes.

Wrzus found that for the most part, social networks shifted as she expected. Specifically, the social circles grew most dramatically during adolescence and young adulthood. This is a time during which people begin expanding their repertoire of friends and make their debut into the working world, which further expands their network. As they age, they enter into relationships and have children; their networks shift to exclude many of the individuals who were on the fringes of their social networks. They focus instead on more intimate, closer bonds with fewer individuals. Events such as job changes, relocation, divorce, and other sporadic but not uncommon occurrences also led to changes in network dynamics. In sum, Wrzus discovered that the changes in social network size and make-up ebbed and flowed along normal age-related life event trajectories. “At the same time, a stable convoy of family relationships and few close confidants accompanies people through positive and negative life events and as they grow older,” added Wrzus.

Wrzus, Cornelia, Martha Hanel, Jenny Wagner, and Franz J. Neyer. Social network changes and life events across the life span: A mta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 139.1 (2013): 53-80. Print.

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  • Saul


    January 21st, 2013 at 4:48 AM

    So true.
    I remember when FB was just getting started and it was so much fun kind of reconnecting with people from the past, catching up with friends that I hadn’t seen in a while.
    But eventually the newness wore off and npw it is just a way to still stay in touch with those people from a distance, but all with the realization that if we had truly been good friends we would have stayed in touch even before social media came into our lives.

  • betty


    January 21st, 2013 at 11:59 PM

    no surprise here,is it?as we move through life the number of friends we have and the importance we attribute to each one is never stagnant and the relationships do change with age.I had some great friends back in college but are now totally disconnected and are not even on each other’s facebook list.reason?shift in priorities and leaving college actually decreased the things we had in common.we didn’t have college to talk about nor did we have the various topics related to college.if we ever do meet all we talk about is enquire about each other and then moving on.seems a little strange but we all change and that is one fact never changes!

  • Michael D

    Michael D

    January 22nd, 2013 at 4:05 AM

    Young people use networking in a whole different way than the rest of us. They post to brag, to joke, to simply hang out with their friends in ways that we all did by actually hanging out with someone in person when we were that age.
    The rest of us probably use it more to share the events in our lives that we are proud of and to catch up on what other people have been doing when we haven’t seen them in a long time.
    In reality it probably is a very different kind of experience for them than it is for us.
    For many of us it still feels kind of new and fresh, while for younger users, it is kind of ho hum and business as usual.

  • Jackson.P


    January 22nd, 2013 at 9:43 AM

    I can relate. Social networking sites began to come up when I was in college. Starting off work brought in newer contacts and my online social circle grew. What also contributed was the separation from college friends at the time of graduation. Slowly the increase slowed down and now when I look at entering middle age I will definitely be shortening my list, reducing my social circle.

    its just that some people take precedence and some others…well you don’t really have anything to do with them anyway. It is a good reflection of what one goes through life. I think there should be a graphic representation of the number of ‘friends’ on such sites, would make for good viewing to some of us old users of such sites.

  • kim


    January 22nd, 2013 at 12:30 PM

    if they allowed the participants to friend only those that they are really friends with and not all their friend’s friend’s friends. then I think the results will be pretty different. yes we interact with many many people and also this set of people keeps changing at different stages of life. but the people we really consider a friend-now that list will have minimal; changes even if it is studied over several years.

    if not for the frenzy on such sites of friending every person out there, the results would have been radically different.

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