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Gen Z Is the Most Likely to be Unfaithful…But It Depends on Your Definition of Cheating

what is considered cheating gen z: young couple looking at phones
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A recent survey reports that younger generations are more likely to say that a relationship has to be physical in order for it to count as "cheating"—but is this spelling doom for future coupling?

Indeed, according to a recent survey conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies for Newsweek, more than 1,500 participants were asked, "In your opinion, does a relationship need to be physical to count as cheating?".  (By non-physical relationships, respondents could mean anything from online sexting to emotional affairs.) First, the good news for strict-constructionist monogamists—a full 55 percent of adults of all ages agreed that in some circumstances, a non-physical affair could be cheating.

But here’s where the generational story gets interesting—among Gen Z (that’s persons born between the late 1990s and early 2010), only 48 percent said a non-physical affair could be considered cheating. Among millennials (born 1981 to 1996), the number climbed to 55 percent, with Gen X (born 1964 to 1980) coming out with 58 percent believing that non-physical “entanglements” can be cheating, to use a newly coined term highlighted in the recent Gen X memoir Worthy by Jada Pinkett Smith.

So overall, the younger the person, the more likely they are to take in stride some person or experience—work wife to dick pic—that happens outside their monogamous love relationship. What’s behind the changing attitudes? It’s easy to pick on the big bad Internet as the source of moral decay (if you can even call it that), but perhaps that is part of the lackadaisical attitude. 

One Gen Zer I spoke with said he got unsolicited nudes from men and women as early as age 11(!), so he learned to take whatever happened online as being less “for real” than the stranger danger he’d been warned about since childhood. Growing up in a digital landscape, his generation’s perception of online culture was vastly different from millennials’ and Gen Xers’. Those two tribes came to social media with a more robust IRL social network—and arguably, a less malleable sense of self—already in place. By the time Gen Z picked up their smart phones, in 2012, U.S. teens’ sense of loneliness began to rise, according to sociologist and author Jean Twenge, and was subsequently supersized by the pandemic to become a full-blown mental health crisis. (Talk about a generation left to its own devices.)

So why does Gen Z minimize online relationships, whether it be a flirtation sliding into their DMs or remote smash session?  I suspect it’s a swerve against the perils of intimacy—Discomfort! Compromise! Possible rejection!—that will reveal itself to be a non-satisfying indulgence of youth soon enough. What is important for all ages, according to therapist Kari Rusnak, is for both parties in a relationship to be aligned on their social media use including—along with less freighted issues like checking social media at the dinner table and posting photos of your partner—what is considered cheating or not. 

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dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...