Online relationships and communications

Online relationships and communication are fundamental since we all spend a lot of time being connected, and off-line and on-line are strictly complementary. In fact, the “digital citizenship” is now as important and relevant as the regular, traditional “citizenship”. “Digital media, especially mobile communication technologies, enable adolescents to explore and experiment with each other with only limited adult control. Conflicts between peers can be easily staged since nearly everybody can be reached at any time under the radar of authorities” (Wendt R. and Quandt W., “The Role of Online Communication in Long-Term Cyberbullying Involvement Among Girls and Boys”, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 2016).

Sexuality and the internet

Two seemingly contrasting features of online relationships are: greater anonymity and greater self-disclosure. Anonymity is associated with concealment, which is contradictory to self- disclosure. However, since greater anonymity reduces vulnerability, it typically facilitates greater self-disclosure, which in turn increases familiarity and intimacy. 

Research indicates that there is faster and more profound self- disclosure in online communication than in face-to-face meetings (Joinson, 2003; Tidwell and Walther, 2002). In online relationships people can be partially or fully anonymous: people can conceal their true identity or important aspects of it. Anonymity in online relationships facilitates self-disclosure as it reduces the risks involved in disclosing intimate information about oneself. People can express themselves more freely since they are more anonymous, less accountable, and hence less vulnerable. In the anonymity (or semi anonymity) of cyberspace, it is much easier to disclose one’s true feelings. Accordingly, it is more likely that in cyberspace the process of self- disclosure will be linear, moving in a unidirectional and cumulative fashion from nondisclosure to near full disclosure. In offline circumstances, the opposing urges to reveal and to conceal makes people oscillate between guarded self-concealment and candid self- disclosure.

Online self-disclosure resembles the ‘strangers on a train’ phenomenon, where people sometimes share intimate information with their anonymous seatmate (McKenna et al., 2002). Since anonymity in cyberspace is greater than on a train, revealing intimate personal details is more common in cyberspace. Online relationships enable people to hide behind a form of communication that is somewhat ‘removed from life.’ It is easier to open up to a faceless stranger that you do not have to look at while revealing your secret or to see the next morning. Online relations are similar in this regard: people can freely express their emotions and become emotionally close without being vulnerable. 

Accordingly, it is also easier to fall in love on the Net. Despite the reduced vulnerability in cyberspace, the online agent can be hurt as well. In this regard, two major aspects are significant: (1) most of the many high hopes that cyberspace generates are not fulfilled – thereby causing frequent and profound disappointments; and (2) profound self-disclosure leaves the agent’s mind naked, without any masks to protect her – and this is a highly vulnerable position for anyone.

Online relationships typically have fewer practical implications than have offline relationships; hence, participants in these relationships are less vulnerable. Indeed, in offline relationships, people tend not to reveal much intimate information until they feel safe. In cyberspace, people are ready to disclose more intimate information since they assume that anonymity and spatial distance reduce the risk of harmful consequences.

Relations in cyberspace are safe not only in the physical sense, since viruses cannot travel in that space, but also in the psychological sense that is provided by being anonymous. Since feeling safe is a major precondition, the safety provided by cyberspace may explain the vast interest in cybersex (Bader, 2002: pp. 263–276).

*Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), 2015

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