Creating a Safe Environment for Teens Experiencing Digital Abuse

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Katie Ray-JonesIt can be far too easy to hide behind a screen in today’s hyperconnected world — whether it’s commenting anonymously or simply using the excuse that your comment wasn’t said to someone’s face and, therefore, shouldn’t be taken seriously. And when it comes to teens, digital behavior that they may view as flirtatious can actually be abusive.

Recently, a teen at a Colorado high school reported that she received unsolicited nude pictures and was asked to share some of her own. After she refused, the sexters stopped. But, what happens when the person doesn’t go away, or a former partner releases explicit photos of a young person? This constitutes digital abuse, which by definition is the use of technologies, like texting and social networking, to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a partner.

Some examples of digital abuse include:

  • sending or demanding that someone send unwanted, explicit pictures;
  • putting a partner down on social media; or
  • using sites like Twitter or Instagram to keep tabs on partners.

Given the fact that 92 percent of teens report going online daily and nearly 75 percent have access to a smartphone according to Pew Research, this kind of behavior is on the rise. In fact, the Pew Research Center of Science and Technology also reports that 65 percent of young Internet users have been targets of online harassment.

We also know from a study conducted by the Urban Institute that only one in five dating abuse victims experience digital abuse or harassment at school or during school hours. With that, schools may have their hands tied regarding how much punishment can be applied. Further, if someone does come forward to report digital abuse (whether at school or an outside organization), this personal information can be made public because it can go on records or be reported. This can prevent teens from seeking help due to fear of retaliation from their abuser or embarrassment in front of their peers or parents. Simply put, because of the way organizations manage digital abuse issues, teens who experience this behavior do not feel safe.

[Related: Use Student-First Language to Stop Bullying Behavior]

Organizations need to create a confidential solution for teens to report digital abuse without being forced to take action. And, teens need to be part of creating that solution.

If teens feel that they are unable to get the help they need, it’s possible they may resort to extreme measures. That was the case with Audrey Pott, who was sexually assaulted at a party in 2013. After a photo of the incident began circulating among her classmates, she took her life.

Let’s face it: Parents, teachers and other professionals who work with young people often don’t know that teens are experiencing digital abuse until other adults start talking, and by then it’s often too late. If trapped in an abusive relationship, 73 percent of teens said they would turn to a friend for help. By making teens an active part of developing solutions to address digital dating abuse, we can shift the power back into the hands of victims and survivors. Teens should have the ability to work with a mentor to identify resources, explore options and implement a plan of action in a way that makes them feel safe.

We have seen firsthand how engaging teens in establishing action plans can help them feel empowered and less fearful. In fact, one of our advocates chatted with a young woman who said nude pictures of her were posted online without her consent. She was scared the photos were going to hurt her chances of getting into school. Our advocate gave her resources to help her understand the nature of what happened, as well as legal resources to educate herself about her rights.

Your first step in creating a safer environment for teens at your organization should be to re-examine your confidentiality policy. The U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women, in collaboration with Break the Cycle, created a framework for developing policies that deal with digital abuse, including how to create an effective confidentiality policy. The loveisrespect website also has a page dedicated to digital conduct, and you can always refer teens to our resources: calling 1-866-331- 9474; texting “loveis” to 22522 or chatting at loveisrespect.org.

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