Online infidelity, sometimes referred to as a cyberaffair, has typically been defined as an encounter initiated through online contact, and sustained by communication such as email or online chat (Young, 1999). Such a liaison, however brief may involve anything from discussing personal information with an online partner to cybersex.
However, our judgements of unfaithful online behaviour may be determined more by the intimacy of a liaison. For example, sharing emotional and intimate information with another person online elicits higher ratings for judgements of infidelity than viewing pornographic material online (Whitty, 2003). This finding is in some ways unsurprising as we would probably be less likely to be upset at our partner looking at pictures of a famous film star than we would at them sharing secrets with a close friend of the opposite sex. So if exchanging personal information with a close friend online can be considered to be unfaithful behaviour, we then need to further analyse the significant components of such an exchange.
What are the salient features of online infidelity?
The Time of Day of the Interaction
One component which may characterise unfaithful online liaisons is the time of day at which such liaisons take place. For example, one of the changes in behaviour associated with someone having an Internet affair is a change in the hours they keep. As the most popular time for online chat is late at night, individuals engaging in online liaisons begin to go to bed later than usual, or get up earlier in the morning (Young, Griffin-Shelley, Cooper, O'Mara and Buchanan, 2000). Therefore it is likely that, individuals engaging in online liaisons when their primary partner is absent may be perceived as being more clandestine in their behaviour. Furthermore the night is generally perceived to be a time for greater intimacy between partners than the middle of the day.
Gradually as a relationship progresses, the number of superficial topics discussed and disclosed increases and there is also progression to disclosure of more personal and then intimate information. In many ways, high self-disclosure may be an almost necessary prerequisite to effective online interaction. For instance, it is unlikely that anybody engaging in an online liaison would talk for very long about the weather, and an Internet survey of 75 respondents supports this view of the importance of self disclosure. In this survey, many respondents reported sharing secrets, discussing personal problems and sexual preferences with their online partners, and doing this within days of commencing an online liaison. Interestingly, women tended to be slower disclosers than men (Underwood and Findlay, 2004).
Further evidence supporting the capacity for people to disclose during online interactions is explained by hyperpersonal interaction in computer mediated communication (Walther, 1996). Walther (1995) describes how interactions carried out via computer were judged as more positive as opposed to face to face interaction on several dimensions of intimacy and interpersonal interaction. A possible explanation for this is the tendency for receivers of computer messages to idealise their communication partners, and similarly for senders of messages to make major efforts for the recipients of their messages to like them.
In our study, we asked participants to rate several fictitious scenarios of online interactions, in terms of whether they considered the interaction to be an act of infidelity. Each scenario described a liaison between a male and a female who were described as already being in a face-to-face relationship. The scenarios varied in terms of the time of day it took place, the amount of disclosure between the couple, and the type of online interaction the couple used. We found that the two factors which were judged to be most important in respondents’ judgements of online infidelity were interactions which took place late at night and those involving high levels of self-disclosure.
Does previous experience of infidelity influence our judgements?
A person’s previous experience of infidelity may involve someone being unfaithful themselves in a relationship, or a partner or ex partner being unfaithful to them and therefore we may approach our examination of online infidelity, by relating it to an individual’s experience of infidelity in an offline context, and asking whether this experience influences respondents’ judgements of unfaithful online behaviour.
Therefore, in our study we additionally surveyed previous experience of infidelity in the form of a simple yes / no answer given to the following two questions, ‘Have you ever been unfaithful to anyone in a relationship?’ and ‘To your knowledge, has anyone ever been unfaithful to you?’
Respondents who answered ‘no’ to each of these questions gave higher judgements of infidelity to a fictitious online interaction, than those who responded ‘yes’ to each question. This finding supports the notion that previous experience of infidelity offline has an effect on our perceptions of infidelity online, seemingly providing a desensitising effect.
Therefore regardless of its non physical nature, the evidence would suggest that online infidelity is certainly a very real phenomenon and our initial research suggests that perceptions of this may be affected by factors such as the time of day of an online interaction and levels of disclosure, and that these are mediated to some extent by our previous experience.
Underwood, H., & Findlay, B. (2004) ‘Internet relationships and their impact on primary relationships’, Behaviour Change, 21 (2), 127-140.
Walther, J. B. (1995) ‘Relational aspects of computer-mediated communication: Experimental observation over time’ Organization Science, 6, 186-203.
Walther, J. B. (1996) ‘Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction’ Communication Research, 23 (1), 3-43.
Whitty, M. T., (2003) ‘Pushing the wrong buttons: Men’s and women’s attitudes toward online and offline infidelity’ CyberPsychology and behaviour. 6 (6), 569-579.
Whitty, M. T. & Carr, A. N. (2006) ‘Cyberspace romance: The psychology of online relationships’. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Young, K. S. (1999) ‘The evaluation and treatment of Internet addiction.’ In L. VandeCreek &T. Jackson (Eds.), Innovations in clinical practice: A source book. 17, 19-31. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
Young, K. S., Griffin-Shelley, E., Cooper, A,. O'Mara, J & Buchanan, J. (2000) ‘Online infidelity: A new dimension in couple relationships with implications’ for evaluation and treatment’ Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 7, 59-74.