Social media has provided tremendous benefits to society. It’s easier than ever to reconnect with old friends, meet people from all over the world, and keep tabs on current events. Social media has even been an invaluable tool for social change and justice. Just think about the role Facebook played in the Arab Spring of 2010.
Social media doesn’t look like a fad that’s going away anytime soon, either. Studies show that 74% of all Internet users are on a social networking site, such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Tumblr. Social media has had an impact on just about every facet of daily life, from commerce and entertainment, to politics and the arts. While much of this impact has been positive, there are some negative consequences to this unparalleled level of connectivity.
Case in point: online or virtual infidelity.
Well, there isn’t a consensus on a definition, but virtual infidelity commonly involves sexually explicit conversations with a person other than your partner online, which may involve videos or pictures, and often involves mutual masturbation. The reason “why” behind virtual infidelity, as opposed to traditional infidelity, is even harder to pin down.
Perhaps it has something to do with just how easy it is. Advances in technology have certainly made it easier to secure instant gratification for just about every want and desire. Psychology Today suggests a correlation between technology and the increase in people struggling with impulse control. Think about all those times you clicked on something you later wished you hadn’t or left an anonymous message, just because you could. The Internet brings everything you could ever want right to your fingertips. It’s hard to believe that doesn’t affect the psyche in a fundamental way – especially when it comes to sex.
Perhaps the larger issue with social media isn’t how it encourages instant gratification, but how we trick ourselves into thinking that it isn't real because it’s online.
For starters, you can be whoever you want to be online. Just pick a username and a picture from an image search and you can cruise the Internet completely incognito. If you aren’t really you, then it’s easy to think that anything this other you does isn’t really you either. Confused yet? The point is that the ease with which we can disguise ourselves online makes it that much easier for people to engage in behavior that they wouldn’t normally consider appropriate.
The web has also challenged the nature of infidelity and what it looks like. In the past, cheating was a simple concept. If you had sex with someone other than your partner (and they weren’t OK with it), it was cheating. We even got on board with the idea of “emotional” cheating, in which there is no sex, but an emotional bond that undermines the bond between you and your partner. The Internet has given us a whole new breed of cheating, in which neither physical sex nor emotional bonding need to take place for cheating to still exist. It can occur through activities such as sexting, social media, and e-mail flirting.
The lack of any physical contact can lead many people to believe they are doing nothing wrong if they engage in cyber sex or flirting. However, as Dr. Jamie Turndorf explains in an interview, indirect sexual engagement – be it online or over the phone – is as real as meeting in a cheap hotel for a midnight hookup. “Don’t kid yourself,” she says, “Just because you haven’t actually touched someone doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
The majority of cheating still takes place between people who already know each other offline. According to results from a survey on how and why people cheat, it was found that 30% of cheaters do so with a co-worker and 29% cheat with an old friend. Social media, though, most likely plays a significant role in these numbers. Think about it: of those who cheat with old friends, how many first had to look them up on Facebook? It may seem harmless to scroll through the profile of an old flame, but how often does this lead to contact?
While it’s important to remember that social media isn’t directly causing people to cheat, it can’t be denied that the Internet and social media provide more opportunities for temptations. They also make it easier than ever to act on these temptations, whether because people can pretend they’re not themselves online or because of the logical fallacy that leads people to believe any behavior on the web is less real. The most important factor here, of course, is that there are real consequences to virtual infidelity. Strictly online affairs can be just as hurtful and damaging as those that happen offline and some of them even turn into offline affairs down the road.