Online Abuse Predicts Real-Life Dating Violence for Teens

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dating violenceTwenty-five percent of teenagers who are in romantic relationships feel their partners have harassed or even abused them through social media, text messages or email, yet only 9 percent ever report such harassment to an adult, according to new research released by the Urban Institute.

Such harassing or abusive behaviors included disparaging a romantic partner on social media, embarrassing him or her by publicly posting private information, sending an overwhelming number of texts or instant messages, sending threatening messages, and demanding or sending unwanted sexually explicit photos.

Nearly 10 percent of teens who were in relationships reported that a partner took control of their social networking account without permission, according to a survey of 5,647 middle- and high-school students conducted over two years.

A journal article based on the survey was published in the February issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. The Urban Institute released its findings in a two-page brief titled “Teen Dating Abuse and Harassment in the Digital World: Implications for Prevention and Intervention.”

Though it may go unreported, such digital abuse rarely occurs on its own, the brief said. Of the teens who reported being electronically harassed by their romantic partners, 84 percent said their partners also psychologically abused them, 52 percent said their partners physically abused them, and 33 percent said they were pressured into sexual acts.

“Teens may not understand that dating abuse comes in different forms besides physical violence,” the brief points out. “Parents, teachers, principals, and peer leaders should raise awareness about the behavior that counts as abuse and harassment and the importance of seeking help.”

The survey findings raised a number of questions, blogged Janine Zweig, a senior fellow at the Justice Policy Institute and a co-author of the research report. Had teenagers simply learned to tolerate digital harassment without seeing it as a red flag? And as teens seemed unlikely to turn to adults for help, would organizing peer education and peer support groups on this issue yield more effective results?

She recommended that parents talk to their teens about digital technology. “Maybe it starts with an open-ended conversation with kids about using digital media, beginning even before they start using it,” Zweig wrote. “Maybe using monthly phone bills to keep track of the number of text messages teens send and receive is a good idea.”

Taking away digital technology won’t solve the problem of dating violence, the brief said.

“The answer isn’t shutting down social media sites or taking away teens’ cell phones,” the brief said. “While technology may open up avenues for dating abuse and harassment, it can also provide the most effective solutions to prevent it.”

“These same digital platforms can be tools to educate teens, spread the word about where to go for help, and give victims and witnesses a safe way to report abuse.”

Photo credit: Zora Olivia