Cellphones, social media are new tools in teen dating abuse

February 14
(EPA/Erik S. Lesser)
(EPA/Erik S. Lesser)

Jokes (and gripes) about teens using social media and cellphones nonstop are aplenty, but some parents might not be aware that these technologies are also being used as tools in dating abuse.

Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline has heard stories from teens who have had dating partners use text messaging, social media and cellphone calls to intimidate and control them. February is Teen Dating Violence Month, and Ray-Jones is trying to spread the word about Love is Respect, a service the Hotline launched in 2011 in conjunction with Break the Cycle.

In a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, 9.4 percent of high school students reported experiencing some form of physical violence by the person they were dating in the 12 months before the survey.

Because many people are starting to date in middle school, Ray-Jones says high school may be too late to start talking about abusive relationships.

“We want to be able to get that healthy relationship education out early enough so that people understand what their expectations should be, so that we’re not trying to correct behavior at that point,” she says.

A section of the Love is Respect Web site spells out the basics of dating and healthy relationships to help young people searching for information figure out if their feelings of unease about their relationship are a sign of something more serious.

“I think, as a field, we’ve gained traction in educating young people around physical abuse and verbal abuse, but how that translates over a digital platform is not something that young people have necessarily made the link to,” she said.

It is a form of dating abuse Ray-Jones feels her field is just beginning to understand, but they are “trying to be proactive with that messaging to help young people understand the risks and benefits of the digital medium.”

In a 2007 Technology & Teen Dating Abuse Survey by Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), teens reported that digital dating abuse “is a serious problem,” in which abusers try to control their partners with tactics like constant text messaging and cellphone calls, usually unbeknownst to their parents.

That was seven years ago, before Twitter exploded and before the launch of Instagram, Snapchat and Vine.

Ray-Jones recalls one very extreme case of digital abuse from a teen girl who contacted Love is Respect. Her boyfriend would enlist his friends to text her while he was sleeping to make sure she was always available. She wasn’t able to sleep because, if one of the texts went unanswered, there would be repercussions.

“From an advocacy standpoint, we’re still on the end where we have to inquire about it. It doesn’t necessarily come up freely in conversation because teens and young adults don’t recognize it as a strategy for dating abuse – to exert power and control,” says Ray-Jones.

Ray-Jones has also heard about boyfriends creating fake Facebook accounts in order to see if their girlfriends would cheat or carry on an inappropriate conversation with someone, or threatening to expose pictures or messages on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Digital abuse is not a problem that is unique to teenagers. It’s the very premise of revenge porn sites. Stalkers have also used online sex ads as a tool for abuse, posing as their victims and posting fake ads inviting strangers to their homes and workplaces for sex.

Ray-Jones says there is a lot of crossover between what they hear from adults and teens when it comes to sexting and having pictures used inappropriately, but the challenge they face with teens is “that feeling of invincibility and ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’”

Some parents have difficulty believing their children are experiencing anything more than puppy love, which makes it hard to imagine verbal, physical and emotional abuse being a factor in their dating relationships.

Ray-Jones urges parents who are seeing any sign of dating abuse in their children’s relationships to call Love is Respect for information, but that education doesn’t have to be limited to adults. Many teens will open up to their friends long before they seek help from a parent or teacher. One of the goals of Love is Respect is to teach teens what to do if they notice abuse in their friends’ relationships.

“You have that information so that you can take action if you need to, or you can talk to a friend. We know bystanders play such an important role in ending dating abuse. We want young people to have that information and to know how to have that conversation so that they can help their friends, in addition to teachers and parents,” said Ray-Jones.

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