In another mark of the increasingly digital life of teenagers, more than 25 percent of those who dated said their love interests threatened or harassed them online or using texts, according to a new study said to be the most comprehensive look at the phenomenon.
Teenagers reported that their social networking accounts were hacked without permission, that they were texted about unwanted sex and that they were pressured to send sexual or naked photos of themselves.
In the study, published online Wednesday in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, researchers concluded that digital technology was not the cause of abuse by teens in a relationship, but it provided a 24/7 platform for abuse, often outside the view of adults.
“The technology opens up a wide avenue for someone who wants to be abusive toward their partner,” said Janine Zweig, lead author and researcher at the Urban Institute. “It’s another tool abusers can use to be relentless.”
The study was based on survey responses from 5,647 students in 10 middle and high schools in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Nearly two-thirds of the students said they had a current romantic partner or had one during the previous year.
Most of the digital abuse or harassment from dating partners did not happen during school hours. Seventeen percent took place on school grounds, but “it could have been at the dance or the football game,” Zweig said.
Some was highly public, too.
Nearly 6 percent of teenagers said their partners had posted embarrassing photos of them online, and 5 percent reported their partners wrote “nasty” comments about them on the partner’s profile page.
“The survey is important in that it provides hard data to confirm what we already know — that domestic violence and dating violence occur where we live our lives,” said Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Project on technology at the National Network to End Domestic Violence. “These days, the digital world is our real world, and for teens even more so.”
In the study, co-authored by Meredith Dank, students reported that digital abuse was not experienced in isolation. More than 80 percent also reported psychological abuse, which included limiting someone’s contacts with family or friends, damaging property, insisting on knowing where they are and insulting them publicly.
More than half reported physical abuse, which ranged from scratching to choking. And one-third said they were sexually coerced, defined as being forced or pressured to perform sex acts they didn’t want to do. Four percent of teenagers said they were harmed only in digital form.
Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said the study brings more understanding to the convergence between the digital life of teens and their experiences of dating violence. “It’s an important step forward,” she said.
The research comes at a time of much discussion about cyberbullying, but there are only a handful of studies about digital dating abuse among teens, Zweig said.
“We are talking about two people who love each other or presumably care about each other,” she said.
The study showed that victims included girls and boys of all ages, races and sexual orientations. Few sought help.
The study had limits: It is not a nationally representative sample and does not include students who dropped out of school. Although it included urban, suburban and rural schools, 74 percent of students surveyed were white, and most were in high school.
Zweig said that if the study had included dropouts, it might have shown a higher rate of dating violence because such students are more vulnerable.