Having an affair over the internet is perceived as actual cheating by most people, a survey suggests.

The affairs, even if not physical, are damaging to relationships, the British Psychological Society's annual conference was told.

More than half of 245 students who took part in a survey carried out by Belfast's Queens University said anyone flirting online was being unfaithful.

Experts said they were often a symptom of a relationship in trouble.

Dr Monica Whitty, of Queen's University asked students to complete stories in which one partner in a couple had developed a relationship over the internet.

It might be easier for people to justify an online affair to themselves, but the consequences can be just as damaging as an offline affair

Dr Monica Whitty
The stories were then studied to see if the online affair was interpreted as infidelity.

In 51% of cases it was, while 84% of the students thought the other partner would feel betrayed.

Women were more likely than men to see the internet affair as damaging to the real life relationship.