When Social-Media Flirting Is Technically Cheating

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THE QUESTION OF what is and is not digital infidelity has haunted monogamous types since cyber pioneers gingerly typed “sex” into ancestral search engines.

But it became even more complicated—and even more important for couples to answer—once social media entered our lives, then took over our lives. When Men’s Health writer Lauren Larson began spiraling over the role of social media in her own relationships, she asked a friend, writer Clay Skipper (plus a real expert, Katrin Tiidenberg, Ph.D., a professor at Tallinn University and coauthor of Sex and Social Media), to help her find the line between harmless browsing and Insta infidelity.

Lauren Larson: Clay, how much time would you say you tend to spend investigating the social-media activity of your partners?

Clay Skipper: The filtered, made-for-Instagram version of my answer is “Why, not at all. I am a completely secure, trusting, evolved human.” The reality is that, in the past, I’ve definitely played the “Well, who is this new follow, and how is his jawline?” game more than I should have. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve tried to keep myself from stumbling down that rabbit hole. It has never yielded anything worthwhile, and relationships are stressful enough without social-media paranoia.

LL: Yes. Same. [Looks at shoes.] But if someone did spend a bunch of time angst-ing over their partner’s social media, what kind of anxiety would be justifiable? A friend of mine recently described some discomfort over the number of women the bass player she was seeing was following and engaging with on Instagram (a lot). She was okay with the simmering stress of that, but I know it would drive me crazy. Any behavior I see on social media that I don’t have full context for—and I see everything, and I have full context for nothing—makes me anxious. If I happen to notice my boyfriend has followed a non-aunt-aged woman I don’t know, I get there is a relationship there but I don’t have enough information to understand it. So my mind autofills the blanks around that small interaction with worst-case scenarios until that woman becomes my boyfriend’s secret wife and nothing can convince me otherwise.

CS: I do agree that any engagement can be a flirtation. I’m not saying it’s in any way wrong or at all classifiable as infidelity. Regardless of the content of the post you’re engaging with, though, you’re doing it to get the other person’s attention—and what is flirtation if not the exchange of attention? But again, flirtation may be okay within the bounds of your relationship, and it seems especially innocuous if it’s with someone your partner has no reasonable chance of meeting IRL, where there’s no reciprocity.

LL: I feel personally threatened by Sydney Sweeney.

CS: Also, I’d keep in mind that social media can be a bit of a Rorschach test. What you see in your partner’s social-media behavior might say more about you—and how you feel about the relationship—than it does about your partner’s actual behavior.

LL: When you and I interrogated Katrin Tiidenberg about this, she said something that made me feel very exposed: “If somebody makes you feel so uncomfortable that you feel that you need to look at what they’ve liked, then I would question whether they’re the right person for you because of how they make you feel, or whether you need to do some work on yourself because you are paranoid.” Tiidenberg also questioned whether it was healthy to investigate your partner’s social media at all. I’ve observed that friends who live their lives offline seem more secure in their relationships, but I’m not sure that’s realistic for me.

CS: I think your level of awareness of your partner’s social-media behavior should be whatever level they are willing to share with you. Trying to secretly monitor their feed feels to me like trying to screen their texts and calls, which I would see as an invasion of privacy and, to your point, suggestive of a lack of trust that should probably be addressed. I remember once hearing psychotherapist Esther Perel talking about how when faced with the unknown in our partners, we can be anxious or we can respond with curiosity. That might be a useful approach for all of us to keep in mind. More “Hey, I find myself wondering what you’re always doing on Instagram—would you be willing to share?” than “HEY, I SEE YOU’RE ON @GIRLSTHATGOLF A LOT THESE DAYS!!!” It might be best to try to broach conversations about social media with an “ask, don’t accuse” mentality.

LL: That’s good, particularly because there’s typically a much simpler explanation for the activity I’ve observed than the alarmist narrative in my head. But when I have been able to suppress my accusations and ask why, say, my boyfriend has recently followed ten beautiful women who are not celebrities and who are not in his orbit in any clear way, the answer has generally been “I don’t know.” That’s dissatisfying but pretty typical, I think, given how social media manipulates our lizard brains, throwing accounts at us. The same is true with likes on Instagram. Tiidenberg described how “sticky” content, such as selfies, is more easily processed by our brains and more likely to inspire a reaction; a like doesn’t necessarily have intent behind it.

CS: I do believe most people hand out likes the way someone on a parade float doles out trinkets and candy: overzealously. It seems to me that most people’s motivations have more to do with how many drinks they’ve had or how bored they are in the back of their Uber and less to do with some preconceived strategy.

LL: Right. Trying to read the tea leaves to determine the meaning of a gesture is pretty useless.

CS: One thing that feels slightly more transgressive is the ol’ DM slide. The move from public to private feels like a small but important step on the journey from innocent flirtation to torrid affair. Why not just text? But then again, I’m looking at that through the narrow moral aperture of someone who has only ever been in monogamous relationships (and who has definitely DM’d exes he shouldn’t have). Maybe torrid affairs are sanctioned because you’re polyamorous, or maybe you and your partner have agreed that flirting on Instagram is empowering for both of you and safer than doing it IRL at the company office party. What is and is not infidelity is a question that can only be answered by you, your partner(s), and your relationship therapist, based on whatever boundaries you’ve agreed upon.

LL: But when I think about having a boundary-setting conversation, I still feel like my line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is so puritanical. When we discussed this with Tiidenberg, she said, “Privacy is a really valuable thing, not just as a human right but as a kind of respect-based sensibility within a relationship.” And it’s true: If I told my friends I was dating someone who policed my social-media activity to the extent that I’d like to police my boyfriend’s social-media activity, they’d be appalled. Where’s your line?

CS: When I’m in an exclusive relationship, the only behavior I can think of that might make me justifiably anxious is if my partner is carrying on an extended DM conversation with someone they are (or have previously been) romantically interested in. The extended part is important. One-off responses to stories here and there don’t suggest there’s any sort of emotional connection building.

LL: I like that. That takes trust.

CS: Even in the face of Sydney Sweeney.

LL: The face of an angel.

A version of this article originally appeared in the October/November 2023 issue of Men's Health.

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