The vital importance of social networks in the lives of vulnerable youth

Nevard, I., Green, C., Bell, V., Gellatly, J., Brooks, H., & Bee, P. (2020). Conceptualising the social networks of vulnerable children and young people: A systematic review and narrative synthesis. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Vulnerable youth have a higher risk of contracting physical illnesses, mental health issues, unhealthy lifestyles, and other quality of life outcomes. 
  • This systematic review aims to explore how social networks affect vulnerable youth, especially in regards to health, wellbeing, and functioning outcomes.
    • Vulnerability determined by ethnic minority status was excluded in this study.
  • Findings indicate that vulnerable youth oftentimes have poor quality networks and that networks are associated with wellbeing.
  • Results also suggest that network embeddedness correlates with positive outcomes, especially for homeless youth, and that family connections can be substitutable if networks are limited.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)


The relationship between social networks and health and wellbeing is increasingly demonstrated in vulnerable adult populations. This relationship for vulnerable children and young people has not hitherto been systematically reviewed. This narrative synthesis aims to consolidate research to provide a foundational basis for future health-related social network research and interventions for children and young people.


This mixed methods systematic review synthesises research investigating whole, egocentric social networks of 32 vulnerable child groups with a mean age below 18. There were no setting, language or date restrictions. The quality was assessed using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool. Of 6360 search results, 49 were included for narrative synthesis.


The majority of pertinent research originates from the USA; the most frequently investigated vulnerabilities were minority ethnic status, homelessness and the presence of special educational needs. Research aims and methodologies varied significantly between studies. Key findings included (i) vulnerable (excluding minority ethnic) children and young people have impoverished networks (ii) access to networks is a protective factor against negative outcomes (iii) social ties, primarily immediate family, provide access to personal resources and (iv) network ties are to a degree substitutable.


Networks are associated with wellbeing and vulnerable children and young people commonly have impoverished networks, excluding cases where vulnerability classification relates to minority ethnic status. Network embeddedness is associated with positive outcomes, particularly for homeless children. Family are typically primary providers of support, but ties are substitutable when networks are restricted. Egocentric social network research is currently limited for vulnerable child populations. Further research could inform interventions that harness networks to improve health, wellbeing and functional outcomes for these child groups.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

In aggregate, this systematic review found associations between social network variables and wellbeing for vulnerable child groups. Vulnerable groups experience limited networks, with the notable exception of ethnic minority children. Most data relating to ethnic minority status sampled African American children and young people; it is unclear if this holds for other minority ethnic groups. Family are the primary source of intra-network social support, as is typical for non-vulnerable children [25]. However, vulnerability was often associated with disrupted access to typical network relationships. This review demonstrates that social ties can compensate for a lack of familial connections for these vulnerable children and young people. Networks are associated with a range of positive outcomes related to mental health, risky behaviour and academic outcomes.

There were no discernible gendered or age-related data trends. Few network interventions were identified in these searches for any vulnerable group; the two identified do not demonstrate effectiveness in altering networks and are based on inadequate data; one had a 98% attrition rate [36, 45]. Both interventions aimed to increase number of social ties through broader family or individual intervention programmes including social network counselling,neither study adequately described intervention methods. This indicates that network research for vulnerable children and young people has not reached a critical evidence base to underpin effective interventions targeting networks as a contributory factor to health wellbeing and functioning outcomes. There is limited social network research for most vulnerable child groups. None was found for many vulnerabilities including sex and gender minority status, exclusion or adoption. Ego-net methods were not standardised, and research aims, data collection and analysis methods varied considerably between studies.

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