Skip to main content

What is cheating online?

Published in Uncategorised by Dr Naomi Moller of The Open University on October 14th 2021

Cheating online – also referred to as an online affair or internet infidelity – is any behaviour conducted through any digital communication device (e.g. phone, tablet, laptop) that someone believes betrays their relationship.

Definitions of online cheating vary from person to person and within relationships

Research shows that definitions of online affairs vary from person to person – just as people vary in what they think is and isn’t OK in terms of face-to-face (non-online) behaviour in a relationship. What’s acceptable behaviour for one person might not be for another and it’s important for people in a relationship to have a conversation about what they’re allowed to do online.

Research suggests a broad range of sexual behaviours can be defined as cheating online

Research suggests that the following online behaviours might be considered cheating:

  • cybersex (exchange of explicit text/audio/video messages with masturbation by all partners)
  • exchanging sexual self-images
  • ‘hot chatting’
  • online ‘dating’
  • viewing online pornography
  • online flirting

This might seem like a straightforward list but what counts as online flirting? Do you have a clear definition? Would you feel differently if your partner was talking online to an attractive person of a similar age versus someone who seems like an unlikely sexual partner (e.g. too old or wrong gender)? The point here is that it can be hard to know what’s OK or not because it partly depends on the exact behaviour and the context in which it occurs.

It can be hard to know what’s OK or not because it partly depends on the exact behaviour and the context in which it occurs

Does watching porn ‘count’ as cheating online?

Research suggests that some people see viewing pornography as cheating, whereas some people don’t. Some examples of when a person can object to viewing pornography are when their partner:

  • uses a sex site which involves viewing sexual content that is ‘live’ (i.e. happening in real time)
  • views pornography of a type that is distasteful to them
  • spends more time viewing pornography than engaging sexually with them
  • shares pornographic material with someone else

For more on this topic, see our resources on ‘looking at porn – can it be cheating’ and ‘addicted to porn’.

Can non-sexual online behaviours count as cheating online?

Research also suggests that non-sexual online behaviours for some people (but not everyone) can also feel like cheating. This might include:

  • Chatting/writing intimately with someone they’ve met online
  • Being active online (e.g. in chat rooms, Secondlife) without revealing, or perhaps even denying, that they are in a committed relationship
  • Keeping their status as ‘single’ on Facebook or another social media platform

It’s hard to know what’s cheating online because everything online is ‘virtual’

Cheating online and cheating offline are very similar, but one way in which they are different is that people are more likely to be confused about whether cheating behaviours online are ‘real’ or not. For some people having sex with someone other than a partner is cheating, however what happens if the sex is virtual? Does that mean the same thing? Does that count as cheating?

For more on this see our ‘why is it easy to cheat online’ page.

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

Share this with friends and colleagues

Looking for help?

Find out more about the therapy and support we offer.

Find out more