Is an Instagram ‘like’ micro-cheating? Gen Z embraces digital sleuthing.

Your boyfriend “liked” an Instagram model’s bikini photos. Is it a betrayal? Harmless flirting? Or is it just a little red heart?

Most everything we do online leaves a trail, from tagging a friend in a photo to liking a TikTok. For people in relationships, those breadcrumbs can become a sign of infidelity - real or perceived.

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“Micro-cheating,” an internet-era term for small acts of betrayal, is the subject of an endless stream of content on social media such as TikTok and Instagram. Because so much of it happens online, couples are monitoring and investigating each other’s digital habits for signs of disloyalty.

The wealth of digital interactions at our fingertips make it tough to tell which ones are appropriate and which cross a line. With the new, contradictory rules of the road come violations of privacy and inappropriate surveillance, some relationship experts say. How much of a partner’s online life are we entitled to, and how much privacy is appropriate to give up inside a relationship?


What counts as cheating these days?

Rana Coniglio, an Arizona-based therapist who works almost exclusively with Gen Z, says clients often come to her with concerns about their partner’s online behavior.

If someone’s Snapchat score - a measure of activity on the app - goes up while they’re at work, does that mean they’re cheating? Does following a model on X mean your partner is shady? Who are they chatting with in direct messages? Is it a problem if they still follow their ex?

The struggle isn’t unique to her clients, who tend to be young women. (Men don’t seek out therapy as often, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Coniglio makes educational TikToks for her 20,000 followers, and she said her messages fill up with people trying to define modern infidelity: My girlfriend sends Instagram reels to her attractive co-worker - is that cheating?

The answer depends on who you ask. Each relationship has different boundaries, and what’s too far for one couple might be normal for another.

In one TikTok trend, people listed off sketchy “micro-cheating” behaviors that they considered just as bad as sneaky sex. Offending behaviors include liking another woman’s Instagram story, responding to a guy’s post in a classroom discussion forum and being caught with another woman’s hair tie.

The videos are meant to be silly and over the top. But conversations about digital infidelity are happening as young people express increasing dissatisfaction with love and romance. They’re burned out on dating apps that turn love into a monetized, algorithmic game. Americans of all ages are having less sex than ever. Critically, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data in 2023 indicating 14 percent of teen girls in the United States had been sexually assaulted.

You can’t blame young people, Coniglio noted, for feeling distrustful.


What starts with scrolling can end in sleuthing

Online creators aren’t just labeling certain activities as micro-cheating, they’re also popularizing amateur sleuthing.

When Kai Gonzalez, 23, got a nagging suspicion her boyfriend was messing around, she drove to his house and parked outside while he was sleeping. He’d paired his phone with her car’s Bluetooth before, so she connected the systems from his driveway and scrolled through his text messages on the screen of her sedan.

He was messaging multiple girls, the 23-year-old said - complete with daily “good morning [smiley face]” and “good night [heart]” texts. She ended the relationship shortly after.

A TikTok Gonzalez made about her sleuthing experience was viewed 8 million times. Comments on the video followed a tongue-in-cheek formula: Insult Gonzalez for being “insane.” Then commiserate entirely.

“Wow that is so out of line,” one commenter said. “Anyway do you think this would work from the street instead of the driveway?”

After her own heartbreak, Patrice Gilgan, a private investigator in North Carolina, dedicated her career to helping people sniff out cheating partners. These days, that work largely plays out online, she said.

People come to her TikTok, Instagram or Facebook profiles when they’re in a bind. Their intuition is telling them something’s not right, but they don’t have proof, she said. Her videos teach people how to dig up evidence of infidelities large, small or micro, as Gilgan shares the tricks she’s picked up during 15 years as a professional investigator.

The tools are myriad. Punch his email address into an account finder and see which social profiles pop up. Find him on Tinder among a sea of actual singles. Gilgan even runs an upstart Facebook group called “MomFish,” where women volunteer to “catfish” by creating fake social media profiles to test the loyalty of each other’s husbands.

Women in particular have long used intuition and whisper networks, such as “Are We Dating the Same Guy” Facebook groups, to keep themselves and others safe. Gilgan has helped thousands of people - some men, mostly women - find evidence and leave deceitful relationships. When someone comes to her worried about micro-cheating, she says she takes their concern at face value, helping them “clear up all that emotion stuff and get to the facts.” So far, she said, her followers’ intuitions have never been wrong.

People hand over the intimate details of their lives to tech companies every day, Gilgan says. It’s convenient for an alleged cheater to suddenly become privacy-conscious when they might get caught, she added.


When worry becomes abusive

Suspicion doesn’t always mean someone is cheating, and online tracking can easily become a form of abuse. The same Apple AirTag that helps one person check whether their loved one got home from a party can help another stalk or harass someone they’re dating.

Coniglio, the Gen Z therapist, said she sees young people increasingly share their real-time location data and access to digital accounts in relationships as a sign of trust.

The line between intimacy and abuse can be hard to navigate, especially for young people new to romance, said Annie Seifullah, a Brooklyn-based attorney who represents victims of digital abuse and public shaming.

Some of the worst cases she’s seen happen when teens start demanding access to a crush’s digital life. Last year, she represented a high school student who alleged in a lawsuit her boyfriend asked for her online passwords as well as screenshots of every text she sent. The abuse escalated into sextortion, she claimed, with the boyfriend demanding nude photos and threatening to share them if she didn’t comply.

It’s a common experience. Cybersecurity company Malwarebytes estimates ​55 percent of Gen Z people in partnerships and 53 percent of millennials have experienced pressure to share logins, passcodes or locations. Kaspersky estimates 10 percent of U.S. singles have had their email or social media hacked by an intimate partner.

“When you’re in a relationship, you open yourself up to heartbreak and risk,” Seifullah said. “If you’re snooping because you feel entitled to not have your heart broken, that’s more entitlement than empowerment.”

Few want to stay in a deceitful relationship, Seifullah and others agreed. But looking back on her Bluetooth sleuthing, Gonzalez said she’d handle the situation differently now: If you can’t trust someone, you should just break up.

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