Online dating is one of the fastest growing industries in the UK today. Every day, hundreds of thousands of us log on to one or more of the growing number of sites available; some looking for serious relationships, others for friendship and companions, and still others for casual flings and that extra bit on the side.
Some sites claim to be purely for genuine singles seeking committed, long term relationships, others turn a blind eye to, or even actively encourage, married or cohabiting members who may or may not use the sites with the blessing of their spouse or partner. Of course many people who use online dating sites do so purely for chatting and exchanging messages and never meet face to face; with the steady growth of the Internet as a communication tool since its inception, it has become increasingly possible for netizens to conduct deeply involved, real time relationships with people they have never actually met.
So what does this change with regard to the old ways of doing things? When does an online relationship become intimate? Can you fall in love with an avatar, and can you cheat on someone, or with someone, who is in a different time zone?
A recent study by Dr Martin Graff of the University of Glamorgan showed that our perceptions of what does and does not constitute cheating online are affected by a variety of factors in most prominently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, by the level of information dating site users are prepared to disclose about themselves; Dr Graff explains
From this study, it seems that the greater the level of typed disclosure, then the stronger the perception of infidelity.
Seemingly, in the absence of the 'nonverbal cues' on which face to face interaction relies so strongly, how much we are prepared to give away about ourselves is the primary indicator of how intimate our online relationships are and by extension, the degree of unfaithfulness inherent in the actions of non single site users.
Perhaps more surprisingly, the study also showed that the time of day at which online encounters took place was also a key factor in establishing infidelity, concluding that
Exchanges later in the evening were perceived to be more infidelitous, than those which might take place in the day or early evening.
Dr Graff's study is ongoing and subsequent phases will look at the issues of jealousy and trust in the context of online relationships.
Ultimately the jury is still out on exactly what constitutes online infidelity and indeed relationships over the net as a whole. It is doubtful that a firm conclusion will ever be reached as the world of online dating and relationships, as in 'real life', will always be immensely subjective due to the differing moral standards and emotional responses of the individuals involved. Studies like Dr Graff's can however provide a fascinating insight into the human causes and effects of the modern world, and how these are shaped by the direction of our rapidly developing and changing communications technology.