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The spy in your bed

How the Internet affects married couples

Milon_Gupta

Milon Gupta
Eurescom
gupta@eurescom.eu

Many people are concerned that modern communications technologies have the potential to turn them into transparent citizens. They fear that they are defenceless subjects to the avid snooping efforts by Big Brother, meaning that their privacy is undermined by government and big service providers. However, the most dangerous threat to your privacy could be much closer – it might be your spouse. 

In 44 percent of couples in the UK at least one of the partners monitors the other partner’s Internet activities without them knowing. This is one of the main results of a recent study on the role of the Internet in UK married life. The survey conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute included a representative sample of over two thousand married Internet users to understand the role played by the Internet in their relationships. 

Monitoring of Internet activities
On the question whether they have ever checked up on their partner’s activities without them knowing, respondents disclosed a wide variety of monitoring practices: 20 percent read their spouse’s e-mails, another 20 percent read their SMS, 13 percent checked their browser history, 5 percent read their Instant Messaging logs, 2 percent used monitoring software, and 1 percent pretended to be another person.

Women are significantly more active in monitoring. In 19 percent of the cases only the wife was snooping compared to 8 percent of only the husband spying. However, almost three quarters (73 percent) of the couples have the same monitoring behaviour: in 17 percent of couples, both are spying on each other, while the majority of 56 percent are not monitoring at all. 

Suspicion of infidelity
The mean reason for this monitoring behaviour seems to be the sneaking suspicion of emotional or physical infidelity. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of spouses would feel unhappy if their partner engaged in one or more of the following online activities with somebody else: falling in love (97 percent); having cyber-sex (94 percent); disclosing intimate details (92 percent); communicating relationship troubles to others (89 percent); sharing personal information about the other partner (88 percent); flirting (85 percent). 

Large agreement on acceptable behaviour
There was general agreement between partners about the level of acceptability of such online behaviours within their relationship. However, 46 percent of couples disagreed about the acceptability of a partner viewing ‘adult’ sites, with men being more likely to accept this in their partner than women.

Husbands are more accepting
One of the conclusions the Oxford researchers drew from the survey results is that women are more concerned about internet-related behaviours. The researchers offered several different explanations for husbands being more accepting of their wives behaviour. It could be that men tend less to believe that their wives will cheat on them through the Internet. Another explanation is that men approve of their wives’ using the Internet for purposes related to sex and relationship in the hope that it will improve their relationship. Furthermore, men consider this behaviour in general more acceptable for themselves and therefore are more inclined to approve it for their wives. 

Positive effects
The Internet has also some positive effects on married life in the UK. 6 percent of married Internet users first met their partner online, and 10 percent indicated that the Internet was ‘somewhat or extremely important’ in maintaining their relationship.

The Internet seems to have a growing importance for marital communication: 19 percent of respondents exchanged messages with their partner at least weekly through e-mail and 14 percent through online chats. However, face-to-face communication was still by far the most reported way for married Internet users to discuss personal matters and resolve problems, but technologies were also used, including telephone (51 percent of users), text messaging (27 percent of users), and e-mail (14 percent of users). 81 percent said they never used e-mail to discuss personal matters. 

Conclusions
Now, what does this survey really tell us? Even if we assume that the UK results are indicative of married couples in developed countries in general, there are no earth-shattering insights in the study. Married couples, like everybody else, are using the Internet for private purposes. Real-life cheating has been complemented by cyber-cheating, and instead of opening love secret letters and listening in on phone talks from the bedroom phone, spouses snoop on e-mails and instant message. Apart from that, spouses are still not happy, if they are cheated, independently of whether it is done online or offline. So, marital behaviour has not really been changed by the Internet. The Internet has in this case only provided another communication channel for activities that have been practised for thousands of years, i. e. relationship talk, voyeurism, and cheating. In fact, it appears that marital communication patterns are still more conservative than, for example, job-related communication patterns. It remains to be seen, if the Internet will bring about more radical changes in marital behaviour. 

What is obvious is that the Internet offers plenty of opportunities to be at least emotionally unfaithful, with the drawback that online cheating is in most cases easily traceable. On the positive side, geographically separated couples have also more opportunities to stay in touch. 

Further information about the survey is available on the project website at http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/project.cfm?id=47

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