Online affairs can be addictive, OU study finds

The internet has made affairs easier to conduct, with a gender divide on what is considered acceptable behaviour online, new research by psychologists at The OU has found.

The study of people who have experienced internet infidelity – either having taken part in it themselves or finding out their partner had – revealed:

  • Grey areas among couples over how they define infidelity online.
  • Gender differences in perceptions of infidelity, with women seeing more internet activities as infidelity, and perceiving them as more distressing.
  • Evidence that online infidelity can be addictive

Internet increases infidelity

With rapid growth in the opportunities for online liaisons, many research participants felt that the internet increases the risk of infidelity, having a disinhibiting effect and making it easier to make contact and conduct an affair. Social media, dating apps, and extramarital affair websites have made it easier for people to engage in unfaithful behaviours such as online flirting, exchanging sexual images and cybersex.


“With long working hours an online relationship is like fast food, ready when we are, naughty, cheap, very often eaten alone without the exhaustion of social niceties.” – Research participant

OU researchers Dr Andreas Vossler and Dr Naomi Moller conducted an anonymous survey for the research. Dr Vossler says: “Men and women do see internet infidelity differently. But it is not just a gender divide - what is experienced as infidelity online can vary from person to person. What might be seen as casual chatting by one partner, is hurtful and disloyal to the other for instance. This matters because infidelity commonly causes significant relationship distress and can have a negative and deteriorating effect on marriages and families.”


A woman at the receiving end of internet infidelity said –    “I have a deep mistrust in the internet, and feel it massively facilitates infidelity. My ex-husband is a shy man, but online he is able to act much more confidently and attract the attention of other women. I strongly believe he would not have had so many affairs without the internet.”


The study also found that the effects of internet infidelity can be as traumatic and wounding as face-to-face adultery, with many participants detailing their ongoing distress and saying it ended their relationship.

Dr Naomi Moller said the evidence shows that couples should be more open about their own attitudes towards social media and internet liaisons; just as they might discuss children and marriage.

The Social Sciences academics are both practitioners in counselling and will use the research to improve understanding and awareness of internet infidelity for the public and professionals.

The researchers continue to expand this study; the survey is still open for submissions.