Digital disruption: An exploratory study of trust, infidelity, and relational transgressions in the digital age

Derek Blackwell, University of Pennsylvania


Digital infidelity, or the use of digital media to initiate and/or maintain extradyadic affairs, has become a growing area of concern in recent years, occupying a prominent position within popular discourse. This study is an attempt to (1) gauge public perceptions of digital infidelity and relationship boundaries in the digital age and (2) shed light on the practices people engage in when navigating these new challenges within their own relationships. To investigate these issues, I administered an online survey (N = 499) that measured large-scale patterns of attitudes and behaviors, and I also conducted a qualitative analysis of 124 personal narratives from an online infidelity support group. Results showed that the biggest predictor of whether a behavior was considered infidelity was the presence of reciprocal sexual interaction, even if the interaction was virtual. Digitally-enabled lateral surveillance was practiced by the majority of survey respondents to monitor their spouses' behavior, and respondents who had used more forms of lateral surveillance were also more likely to believe that their spouse had committed a digital transgression. Notable gender differences emerged, as women were marginally more likely to report greater lateral surveillance behavior and significantly more likely to suspect their partner of a digital transgression. The analysis of personal narratives suggests that this kind of surveillance has led digital detection to become the new norm for infidelity discovery. For betrayed spouses, lateral surveillance was often depicted as providing increased agency within the relationship; however, upon closer analysis, this agency appears to be illusory, as informants lamented the many anxieties that accompanied having to constantly monitor their partner. The findings from this study suggest changing notions of trust in the digital age, as informants positioned the digital record as the ultimate authority for information about their partner's faithfulness. This raises questions about the trustworthiness of digital 'proof', as the potential for such evidence to be misinterpreted could have significant implications for the future of relationship stability. Although focused on romantic infidelity, this study also contributes toward broader understandings of sociocultural accommodations of trust and suspicion within interpersonal relationships in the digital age.

Subject Area

Communication|Web Studies

Recommended Citation

Blackwell, Derek, "Digital disruption: An exploratory study of trust, infidelity, and relational transgressions in the digital age" (2014). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3635471.