Having hundreds of friends on Facebook is no substitute for a handful of close friends in real life, a study has found.
Researchers discovered that people with only a few friends were at least as happy as those with far more if many of theirs were online.
The number of 'peripheral others' someone connected with online – former classmates and coworkers, for example – had no bearing on how satisfied they felt.
Social media, the researchers said, has encouraged younger people to have larger but more impersonal networks of 'friends'.
But instead of trying to amass friends, they added, a better cure for loneliness might be spending time with those you're closest to.
Scientists from the University of Leeds did their study using data from two online surveys conducted on 1,496 people by a non-profit research organisation.
People taking part in the study revealed their ages, the make-up of their social networks, how often they had different types of social interactions, and their own feelings of wellbeing.
They included details of how often and how they interacted with family or neighbours, and whether they included people who provided services to them in their networks.
The number of close friends someone had appeared to be the only thing which influenced how satisfied they were with their social life.
'Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,' said Dr Wändi Bruine de Bruin.
'It's often the younger adults who admit to having negative perceptions of their friends. Loneliness occurs in people of all ages.
'If you feel lonely, it may be more helpful to make a positive connection with a friend than to try and seek out new people to meet.'
In her study Dr Bruine de Bruin found older people tended to have smaller social networks.
Younger people's were larger but this was mostly made up of 'peripheral others' – not true friends, just people they knew – and did not contribute to their happiness.
Even variations in the number of family members or neighbours somebody spent time with did not affect how happy they were with their social life.
Dr Bruine de Bruin said her research echoed other findings showing people reported being happier if a larger proportion of their online friends were actually their friends in reality.
She added: 'Stereotypes of aging tend to paint older adults in many cultures as sad and lonely.
'But the research shows that older adults' smaller networks didn't undermine social satisfaction and well-being.
'In fact, older adults tend to report better well-being than younger adults.'
The research was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.