Social Network Support

Key Messages

  • B.C. and Manitoba score “A” grades on perceived social network support.
  • Overall, Canada earns a “B” and ranks 8th out of 16 peer countries.
  • Saskatchewan and P.E.I. score “D–” grades on social network support, ranking at the bottom of the pack.

Putting social network support in context

Perceived social network support reflects an individual’s perception of being able to count on someone else in times of need. It can be understood in terms of three types of support:

  • instrumental: giving and receiving material aid, e.g., help with daily tasks
  • informational: giving and receiving advice or guidance
  • emotional: “empathy, caring, reassurance, and trust and provides opportunities for emotional expression and venting.”1

Perceived social network support is a useful indicator for society’s performance because individuals with positive social relationships and strong social networks are more likely to have better physical and mental health outcomes, to be employed, and to report higher life satisfaction.2

For example, social support is thought to promote better overall health by providing a buffer against stress.3 Specifically, believing that others will provide necessary and situationally appropriate resources can strengthen people’s perceived ability to cope with demands, thereby lowering their actual level of stress. Given that stress has been linked to detrimental coping behaviours—e.g., smoking, consuming alcohol, illicit drug use, sleep loss—and negative health outcomes,4 social support plays an important and beneficial role in achieving positive overall health.

Positive social connections can also produce shared values, which can influence other societal factors like economic growth, crime rates, and democratic participation.

How is perceived social network support measured?

The perceived social network support report card indicator is measured as the proportion of individuals in each country or province who answered “yes” to the question “If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them, or not?” While this question does not address the quality or quantity of social networks, it does provide a general measure of social support.

The data for the social network support indicator are from OECD data based on the Gallup World Poll, which samples about 1,000 people (aged 15 years and older) per country per year using the same questionnaire. This sample size means that potentially fewer than 100 respondents are included from each Canadian province. However, Gallup weights the “samples to match the national demographics of each selected country.”5 Therefore, the overall Canadian responses should be taken to be representative.

Provincial data are derived by micro-data pooling the yearly 2006 to 2014 survey responses, reweighting these estimates, and identifying the percentage of the regional sample that answered “yes” to the social network support survey question.6

How do the provinces rank relative to international peers?

B.C. is the top-ranking province, earning an “A” grade and outperforming all international peers except Ireland (96.8 per cent). Just over 96 per cent of respondents (96.3) in the province believe they have a social network they can turn to in times of need. Manitoba (95.7) also earns an “A” and outperforms all peer countries except Denmark (95.9) and Ireland.

With 93.9 per cent of the population indicating they have a social support network, Canada gets a “B” grade overall and ranks 8th among the 16 peer countries, tied with the Netherlands. Quebec is the only province to score a “B” and matches the national average on perceived social network support.

New Brunswick (93.4) ranks just behind Quebec and Norway (93.8) and gets a “C” grade, placing 14th among the 26 comparator regions.

Most provinces are at the bottom of the pack. Nova Scotia (92) and Ontario earn “C” grades and tie for 20th place, trailing closely behind the United States (92.1). Newfoundland and Labrador (91.7) and Alberta (91.6) get “D”s and rank 22nd and 23rd, respectively. Saskatchewan (89.5) and P.E.I. (82.5) are “D–”performers, placing below the lowest-ranked country, Japan (90.2).

How do the provinces rank relative to each other?

Most provinces are separated by only a few percentage points on the perceived social network support indicator. B.C. (96.3 per cent) and Manitoba (95.7) are the highest-ranked provinces, with about 96 per cent of survey respondents indicating they can count on someone in times of need. Both of these provinces outperform the national average (93.9). Quebec matches the Canadian average, while New Brunswick (93.4) trails slightly.

Six other provinces also rank below the national average. Ninety-two per cent of Nova Scotia’s and Ontario’s survey respondents indicate having social network support, as do almost the same shares of respondents in Newfoundland and Labrador (91.7) and Alberta (91.6). The two provinces that rank lowest on perceived social network support are Saskatchewan (89.5) and Prince Edward Island (82.5).

While the share of people who indicate they have social network support differs slightly from province to province, it is important to keep in mind that small differences in social support rates translate into large numbers of people who might not have the support they need. Assuming the Gallup World Poll survey results are representative of the population at large, each percentage point difference in, for example, Alberta’s social network support rate is the equivalent of more than 41,000 people having or not having social support.7 Even at 96.3 per cent, B.C. still has more than 173,000 people without social support—an extraordinary number of people to view themselves as socially isolated.8

Interestingly, a gap of nearly 14 percentage points separates the top-performing province B.C. and lowest-ranked Prince Edward Island. While it is possible that these results are skewed as a result of the imbalance between the sample sizes of B.C. and P.E.I., this gap is nevertheless striking. Given the fact that B.C. is larger, more urban, and more geographically expansive than the smaller, more close-knit society of P.E.I., one might think that individuals living in the smaller, more geographically concentrated province of P.E.I. would report higher levels of social network support than individuals living in B.C.; however, this is not the case.

Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from the data analyzed here why survey respondents in certain provinces report higher levels of perceived social network support than others. There do not appear to be any trends in terms of regional geography, population size, or economic conditions. Moreover, there is no additional information on the quality, quantity, or nature of social support available. In the future, it will be important to examine indicators of social connections that describe a range of different relationships in order to identify the variety of sources (e.g., social networks, personal relationships) that provide individuals with support.9

Are there any differences in perceived social network support among different age groups?

Young people (15 to 29 year olds) are more likely than older people (50 year olds and over) to report having someone they can count on in times of need.10 This has important implications for a country like Canada with an aging population—currently over 13 million individuals are at least 50 years old.11 Notably, people in this age demographic represent one-third or more of the population in all provinces. Without strong social network support, older Canadians are less likely to enjoy the social, economic, and health benefits of strong social connections as they face life’s stressors, some of which become more pressing with age.

What is the relationship between perceived social network support and life satisfaction?

Findings of the World Happiness Report 2016 show that perceived social network support accounts for 26 per cent of the difference in countries’ life satisfaction scores.12 This finding should be interpreted with caution because of the methodological constraints of the World Happiness Report series, which uses a limited selection of comparable international data, and certain unmeasurable or excluded variables may account for the difference in life satisfaction scores among countries. However, the link between social network support and life satisfaction does support the notion that having someone to count on in times of need is important to an individual’s overall sense of well-being.

It is interesting, therefore, that some of the Canadian provinces demonstrate an inverse relationship between levels of perceived social network support and life satisfaction. For example, the top-ranked province on social network support, B.C., ranks lowest on life satisfaction. Similarly, Saskatchewan and P.E.I. are among the highest-ranked provinces on life satisfaction but rank at the bottom of the provinces on perceived social network support.

Even though it is important not to over-interpret this relationship—because pooled samples and the larger samples from more populous provinces may cause distortions—this still suggests that, in addition to social network support, there are many other factors that contribute to higher life satisfaction, including education, health, and income.

Is inadequate social network support really an issue in Canada?

Only a small minority of respondents in Canada indicated not having adequate social network support: social isolation is not perceived to be an issue by about 9 out of 10 people in Canada. However, the fact that as many as 1 in 10 Canadians (about 3.5 million people) lacks a support network can significantly affect physical and mental health outcomes, employment rates, economic growth, democratic participation, crime rates, and levels of life satisfaction in the country.

While performance on this indicator is relevant and indicative of potential gaps in social support, methodological constraints make it difficult to draw reliable conclusions. Therefore, more surveying is required to help individual provinces understand where gaps exist and then find ways to strengthen social network support for the greatest number of individuals.


1    Sheldon Cohen, “Social Relationships and Health,” American Psychologist (November 2004), 677.

2    OECD, How’s Life? 2015—Measuring Well-Being, 82.

3    Sheldon Cohen, “Social Relationships and Health,” American Psychologist (November 2004).

4    OECD, How’s Life? 2011—Measuring Well-Being.

5    Gallup, How Does the Gallup World Poll Work?

6    OECD, OECD Regions at a Glance 2016.

7    Calculations based on data from Statistics Canada CANSIM table 051-0001, Estimates of Population, by Age Group, and Sex for July 1, Canada, Provinces, and Territories (accessed September 23, 2016).

8    Ibid.

9    OECD, How’s Life? 2015—Measuring Well-Being.

10    OECD, How’s Life? 2015—Measuring Well-Being.

11    Statistics Canada, CANSIM table 051-0001, Estimates of Population, by Age Group and Sex for July 1, Canada, Provinces, and Territories (accessed September 23, 2016).

12    John Helliwell, Richard Layard, and Jeffrey Sachs, World Happiness Report 2016.