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Tuesday, 4 July, 2000, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Studying cyber romance
man in internet cafe
Looking for love? Try an internet chat room
A social worker is carrying out a three-year study of cyber romance.

Australian PhD student Scheryl Hayhoe is planning to speak to hundreds of people who have found love through the internet, looking at the consequences it has had for them and their families.

She is focusing on those who considered themselves to be in happy, loving relationships before falling in love online.

The purpose of her research is to make social workers and counsellors in Australia aware of how online relationships form and how powerful they can be, so that they can consider how best to help those affected.


wedding rings
Some couples have married after meeting online

Ms Hayhoe, who is carrying out her research at the University of South Australia at Whyalla, told BBC News Online: "I'm looking at those people already in relationships, be it de facto marriages or other partnerships, who are totally confused about how their online relationships have developed.

"These are people who, to all intents and purposes, are in very, very stable relationships, and are relatively happy.

"They pop online, chat to people with similar interests, perhaps in hobby groups, and connect with somebody on a different level. Before they know it, they are having all these different feelings.

Isolation

"The internet has only really been publicly available in Australia for the last three years, and financially available for about the last 18 months, so this is a new concept for social workers and counsellors.

"People are coming to them saying they have fallen in love online, so they need to be aware of how it happens, that it really can happen."

A feeling of isolation is often the cause of internet relationships, according to Ms Hayhoe.


Scheryl Hayhoe
Scheryl Hayhoe: "It's not a new phenomenon"

She says that in the modern world people are often cut off from forming new relationships in a culture where people rush home from work and close the doors.

In rural areas of Australia, people living in small communities can be even more limited in terms of opportunities for meeting new people, she believes.

"There is still pressure in society for people to get married and have children. Because of that pressure, and out of loneliness, many people marry someone they love, but whom they're not in love with," she said.

"They are still experiencing loneliness a few years into their marriage. If they go online and start to really relate to someone, that loneliness starts to ease."

Wartime penpals

According to Ms Hayhoe, meeting and forming a relationship with someone online is far more romantic than forging a bond the conventional way.

"The concept of falling in love with someone you've never met is not a new phenomenon - for example, people have fallen in love by being penpals, especially during the war when lots of women wrote to soldiers, fell in love with them, and when the soldiers came home, got married to them.


Valentines display in shop
Is online love more romantic than conventional courtship?

"A similar thing was the CB radio craze in the 1970s - ham radios. People developed relationships over those as well. In the 1980s it was more party phone lines.

"While you can wait two or three weeks for a letter, ham radios aren't always reliable, depending on circumstances such as the weather, and party line phones are expensive, the internet is very quick, cheap and reliable.

"It's not just text-based either - you can have audio and video, to see and hear the people you are communicating with."

Ms Hayhoe is currently halfway through her research into online love. She only recently began her search for people to come forward to tell their stories, but says she has already received a fantastic response.

To qualify, respondents need to be 18 or over, live in Australia, and have been involved in both an online and offline relationship over the past 12 months.

Ms Hayhoe has set up a website explaining the research project, which includes a message board for people who may not necessarily qualify to be included, but who want to share their experiences of online relationships.

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19 Aug 98 | Sci/Tech
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