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Forget Facebook friends: this is the (small) amount of people you can rely on in a crisis

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We're told a lot about the perils of our social media lives: we brag, we lie, we covet, we repel employers and on the whole, would be happier without it.

But most of us use it and there are upsides – not least the sharing and highlighting of important issues, the fun of interesting links and silly pictures and the maintaining of friendships that otherwise would have been lost over time, right? Wrong. On that last one, anyway.

New research from Oxford University suggests that while we may think we're staving off friendship neglect because we see and like someone's holiday pictures once in a while, in reality we wouldn't give many of our Facebook friends a call when the proverbial hits the fan. In fact, of an average of 155 ‘friends’, we'd rely on just four in a crisis.

And it confirmed that the only way to properly maintain a friendship is with face-to-face contact.

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Who would you call in a messy situation?

The paper, published in Royal Society Open Science by Professor Robin Dunbar, looked into whether the group-size aspects of social brain hypothesis applied online as well as offline – that in theory there's a limit to the amount of people we can realistically have relationships with, given our brain's ability to process information and the time it takes to actually maintain each one.

The natural limit is thought to be between 100 and 200 people, but the research (two surveys of more than 3,300 people) explored whether social media increases that number, given the ease of connecting and interacting online. Does it really allow us to have more friends?

Not really. The study found that the average Facebook friends list is still within those limits (155 in one survey and 183 in the other) and even for those with thousands of online pals, face-to-face contact is still the only way to maintain close friendships.

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True friendships are few and far between

Dunbar said of the research: “Social media certainly help to slow down the natural rate of decay in relationship quality that would set in once we cannot readily meet friends face-to-face.

“But no amount of social media will prevent a friend eventually becoming just another acquaintance if you don’t meet face-to-face from time to time. There is something paramount about face-to-face interactions that is crucial for maintaining friendships.”

So our liking, chatting and sharing online could really make no difference to the friendship itself. If we'd call that person in times of trouble or wriggle out of a catch-up coffee outside of Facebook, we're likely to do the same within our busy news feeds.

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Be honest: is this you?

Both surveys found that women averaged more online friends than men, counting 166 compared with 145 in one survey and 196 to 157 in the other. Overall, participants in the first survey reported that of their online friends, they regarded just 28 per cent as genuine and would turn to only four for help. The second group, with slightly higher numbers of online friends, said they would turn to 14.

“There is a cognitive constraint on the size of social networks that even the communication advantages of online media are unable to overcome,” Dunbar said of the figures.

“The fact that people do not seem to use social media to increase the size of their social circles suggests that social media may function mainly to prevent friendships decaying over time in the absence of opportunities for face-to-face contact.”

Images: Rex Features / Thinkstock

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