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How can we talk about what is OK online?

Published in Uncategorised by Dr Andreas Vossler of The Open University on October 18th 2021

Since what's acceptable online behaviour is particular to each individual and couple, it is important to have a conversation about each other's boundaries.

Why is it important to talk about what’s OK online?

It’s clear from the research that what’s seen as problematic or cheating online behaviour is highly subjective. For more information, see our ‘what is cheating online?’ page. This means that online activities that are OK for one partner in a relationship may not be OK for the other partner, and vice versa. It is therefore important to not just assume that your partner's idea of cheating online is the same as yours but rather talk openly to your partner about these issues. Having a conversation about these issues will help a couple to negotiate boundaries in regard to what is acceptable behaviour online in their relationship and what not.

How to talk to your partner about what is OK online

Sitting down with your partner and talking about sexual and intimate online behaviour can feel a bit awkward at first. To start the conversation, it might be a good idea to look at examples of potentially problematic online activities together and discuss how each partner would feel if the other were to engage in these.

In the section below you’ll find a checklist of online activities that you might want to discuss with your partner. It’ll be important to make the communication two-way and share concerns and feelings with each other. The aim should be to try and understand what each other is saying without judging, attacking or criticising. Remember, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this conversation.

The aim should be to try and understand what each other is saying without judging, attacking or criticising

A checklist to discuss potentially problematic online activities

When talking with a partner about what’s OK online, and what isn’t, it can be helpful to go through a list of online activities. The Online Activity and Behaviour Checklist (OABCL) is based on previous research and it covers a broad range of online activities which could potentially be problematic:

How would you feel if you partner were to:

1. Get involved in sexual activities online:

  • Witnessing, in real time, another person engaging in a sexual act/s and vice versa (e.g. via Skype)
  • Masturbating while chatting online with another person about sexual fantasies
  • Chatting explicitly about sexual fantasies e.g. that they want to engage in together
  • Flirting with someone in an internet chat room

2. Use the internet to exchange images with someone else:

  • Sharing sexual images of themselves (such as photographs of their genitalia or video clips of them taking off their clothes) with another person
  • Sharing pornographic images or video links with someone else
  • Posting provocative or sexual pictures of themselves on social media or a chat-room forum

3. Get emotionally involved with another person online:

  • Chatting/writing intimately with someone they met online about important emotional topics
  • Chatting/writing intimately with an old friend about important emotional topics

4. Hide the fact that they are in a relationship online:

  • Being active online (e.g. in chat rooms, Secondlife) without ever revealing that they are in a committed relationship
  • Keeping the status ‘single’ on Facebook

5. Use social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter) to meet up with other people:

  • Connecting with old sexual partners or old girl/boy friends
  • Linking up with random strangers

6. Spend a lot of their time with activities online:

  • Spending all their free time chatting to other people in chat rooms
  • Spending a lot of time on social media (e.g. Facebook, Twitter)
  • Engaging in an online world (e.g. on Secondlife) or online games in their free time

7. Plan to and meet online contacts in the ‘real' world:

  • Making plans to meet in the ‘real world’ someone they met through an internet chat room
  • Talking and flirting face-to-face with someone they’ve met through an internet chat room

8. Use the internet to secretly view sexual images:

  • Masturbating while looking at pornography
  • Looking at pornography without masturbating
  • Looking at websites with sex toys or lingerie (e.g. Victoria’s Secret)

Which of these online activities would you perceive as cheating in committed relationship? Which of these are OK? How does your partner feel about this?

To see the full list of research references which have informed the content on this page, please see our research references section.

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