Research suggests that there are some aspects of the internet that may make it easier to be unfaithful.
In the virtual world it’s harder to know what’s ‘real’ cheating
The fact that the online world is ‘virtual’ (as opposed to the ‘real’ world) can make it hard to judge online behaviours. For example, the following statements were made by two people who took part in a research study:
- He admitted he knew it was basically cheating but insisted he would never actually be intimate with another in 'real life.'
- Using a web cam … it's no better than having a “real” woman in your own bed using your own hairbrush.
Notice how they both use the word ‘real’ but they argue different things – in the first case that virtual sex is different from “real life” sex and in the second case to argue that it’s not.
Researchers suggest that confusion around definitions can make it easier to justify cheating online.
Research has identified several factors that may make online affairs easier
- Accessibility and Affordability – for many it is both affordable and easy to get online because so many people own portable, internet-enabled devices like smart phone and tablets
- Anonymity – the fact that a person can be totally anonymous online seems to make it easier to do things that a person might not do in real life
- Acceptability - research suggests that some things (e.g. viewing pornography) can be more socially acceptable if done online/via the Internet
- Ambiguity - researchers think that because it is hard to define exactly what counts as cheating online, users feel free to explore new territory
- Approximation and Accommodation – the internet allows people to simulate (approximate) real-world situations. For example, a person who would never have sex with a person of their own gender can explore this sexual fantasy online in a way that may feel safe and more acceptable. This can then allow them to ‘accommodate’ different parts of themselves – such as the part that wants to be faithful to their partner with the part that wants to engage in a sexual behaviour that their partner does not enjoy/approve of.
Intimacy may build faster and deeper online
Quite a lot of research suggests that there is something known as an ‘online disinhibition effect’ – that is that people are more likely to be open and to reveal personal truths online. It also seems that they develop a sense of intimacy and trust more quickly, resulting in strong emotional connections. While this can be a good thing, it may allow a casual friendship that is formed online to more easily tip over into a relationship between two people who have feelings for each other.
To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.
Page authored by Dr Naomi Moller (The Open University)