New research from the University of Virginia and Brigham Young University shows that the internet has dramatically shifted younger Americans’ definitions of romantic and sexual loyalty and commitment.

“While the vast majority of Americans remain opposed to sexual infidelity while married, younger adults are significantly more likely to engage in internet infidelity than older generations, reflecting a discernible shift into uncharted marital territory that portends, for those under 50, possible stressors previously unnavigated by their predecessors,” wrote the researchers for the National Marriage Project, including W. Bradford Wilcox, a professor of sociology at UVa, and Jeffrey Dew, an associate professor of family studies at Brigham Young and a fellow of the Wheatley Institution.

The study included responses from 2,000 Americans from the millennial, generation X, baby boomer, silent and greatest generations. The representative sample allowed researchers to map responses from a survey conducted since 1998 that has asked respondents about their views on marital fidelity.

Social stereotypes about each generation portray hook-ups, self-interest, divorce or “Father Knows Best,” but the findings show that infidelity among married couples remains essentially flat, at about 15% in 2018.

However, marriages occurred in 2018 at roughly half the rate of that they did in 1946, and people tend to delay marriage until later in life. Concurrently, divorce rates have declined since their peak in 1980, the researchers found, and cohabitation rates — the amounts of opposite-sex people living together — have increased.

The internet has enabled new ways to form relationships and new ways to cheat, the researchers write — and has introduced new definitions of each of those behaviors.

“Today, there are clearly significant generational behavioral differences occurring online,” they wrote. “Whatever inhibitions keeping these two generations in line and reticent in flesh-and-blood reality weaken once a computer screen lights up.”

Among the findings:

» Although a clear majority of Americans in all generations express support for sexual fidelity in their relationships and report they are sexually faithful in real life, today’s young adults are markedly more likely to cross online boundaries related to sex and romance. For example, 18% of millennial participants engaged in sexual talk online with someone besides their partner, compared with 3% of greatest/silent generation participants, 6% of baby boomers and 16% of Gen Xers.

» Several online behaviors are rated by most Americans (70% or more) as “unfaithful” or “cheating,” including having a secret emotional relationship or sexting with someone other than a partner/spouse without the partner’s/spouse’s knowledge and consent.

» Married and cohabiting men and women who maintain strong boundaries online against potential sexual and romantic alternatives are more likely to be happy in their relationships.

The full report can be found at stateofourunions.org/2019/SOOU2019.pdf.

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