Many dating teens are targets of digital abuse and harassment

A new study indicates that technology is often used to control and intimidate dating partners and increases risks for other forms of dating violence.

Chances are that most young people don’t enter romantic relationships expecting that they’ll be the target of unhealthy behaviors from their romantic partner. But far too many teens experience verbal, physical, sexual and emotional abuse and harassment by their dating partners. These experiences can have serious short-term outcomes for the young people involved. They can also result in damaging long-term impacts such as mental health issues, substance abuse and lowered academic performance. Recent Michigan State University research has also linked being the victim of adolescent dating violence to lowered economic status in adulthood.

Technology such as social networking sites, texts, cell phones and email play a significant role in dating abuse experiences for both middle school and high school students. A study recently released by the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center showed that one in four dating teens had been abused or harassed online or through texts from their partners. These forms of harassment often take place away from school property and outside of school hours – in other words, a young person can be targeted around the clock through technology by an abusive partner.

Teens reported that the most common forms of digital abuse and harassment involved their partner tampering with their social networking account without their permission, sending them degrading and threatening messages, pressuring them to share sexual photos and sending large numbers of messages. The study results also showed that teens targeted though technological abuse were at higher risk for other forms of dating abuse; they were two times as likely to be physically abused, 2.5 times as likely to be psychologically abused, and five times as likely to be sexually coerced.

Many experts say that the most effective solutions for preventing teen dating violence involve raising awareness about these issues and providing education for both young people and the adults in their lives (parents and other caregivers, school staff, youth workers and volunteers, etc.). Helpful and caring adults can provide ongoing conversations with teens about healthy and unhealthy romantic relationships and share strategies and expectations about using technology in healthy ways. Adults can also make it clear that they are available as trusting and non-judgmental resources for teens that might be experiencing harassment and abuse. This includes sharing information about helpful sources, such as the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence (which provides links to local Michigan resources) and the National Dating Abuse Helpline (which provides assistance 24-7 by phone, text or online chat).

Keep in mind that Michigan State University Extension provides programs and opportunities for adults to help young people learn more about issues including dating violence, bullying and harassment. A new MSU Extension resource called Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments, helps youth and adults learn together about issues of bullying – including differences between relationship patterns that are healthy and those that are unhealthy. You can learn more about Be SAFE through the MSU Extension Bookstore.

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