Unsocial Media

Digital Harassment Is the New Means of Domestic Abuse

More girls are reporting their boyfriends stalk them via text message or threaten to humiliate them with social media. What starts in cyberspace rarely ends there.

When most hear the words “domestic violence,” the image of someone physically battered comes to mind. But technology is increasingly replacing fists as the weapon of choice in abusive relationships.

Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, explained that one of the goals of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month this February is to educate teens and their parents about the perils of dating abuse in all its forms. Ray-Jones explained that in recent years they have seen a significant increase in the number of girls contacting the Hotline to report treatment by their boyfriends that didn’t fit traditional definitions of violence but certainly constituted abuse.

“What we’re hearing a lot on the hotline and prompted us to engage in a digital abuse awareness strategy was a lot of young people were talking about their partner—boyfriend or girlfriend—constantly texting them and if they don’t respond in appropriate time there are repercussions and a fight breaks out,” she said. Others reported their partners “constantly texting them to know where they are and who they are talking to.”

Some reported their boyfriends threatened to post demeaning photos of them on social media if the teens disobeyed their commands. Others said their boyfriends set up fake Facebook accounts to test whether or not they were interacting with members of the opposite sex without permission. In what sounded like a particularly extreme case of technology being used as a form of control, one teen reported her boyfriend would text her on a designated schedule so he could be sure she wasn’t with someone else cheating. When he would sleep, he had his friends continue texting her on the schedule, and whether she was trying to sleep or not she was expected to reply or face physical violence. This story sounded hard to believe until I spoke with Brittny Henderson a 23-year-old victim of dating abuse, much of it carried out through technology before allegedly escalating to physical violence.

Henderson was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin when she attended a speech on dating abuse. The speaker was sharing the story of his daughter who had been in an abusive relationship. “Everything he said about her had happened to me,” she said. “That presentation hit home and it hit hard. It opened my eyes to the fact that I had been in abusive relationship.” It was also “the first time I’d even heard the term dating abuse,” she said.

As a shy high-school freshman, Henderson was pursued by senior who was a popular football star. She felt so in awe that he expressed interest in her that she never questioned the appropriateness of some of his behavior. Initially it began with him regularly critiquing her appearance, reminding her that many girls wondered why he had chosen to be with “someone like her.” But the real warning sign she now realizes was the amount of time he expected her to be available to him by phone. Henderson explained that he would often spend time at her home when they weren’t at school together, and after her parents would ask him to leave, he would call her and ask to stay on the phone with him for the entire drive home. After both dressed for bed, he would call her again. “I would wake up to his voice screaming at me on the phone because I had fallen asleep,” she said.

Despite her friends and family expressing alarm the relationship continued for years and his abuse escalated. After becoming upset she was spending too much time at a summer job and not enough with him, Henderson said he locked her car keys in his trunk. When that didn’t work, he put her work uniform in a running shower so she was unable to wear it that day. Henderson’s boss then reported strange calls. Some days a family emergency required her to leave work immediately. These behaviors, while disturbing, never seemed to fit the traditional definitions of abuse as Henderson and others knew it. But one incident did. “He pinned me against the wall by my throat,” Henderson said, after he interpreted her laughter as directed at him.

After Henderson’s father put his foot down and demanded they stop seeing each other, she continued the relationship—until she heard the speech on dating violence at her university. She now tries to educate other teens on dating abuse as a member of the Youth Advisory Board for LoveIsRespect.org. Her advice to other girls: “You deserve to be treated with respect and you deserve to be in a relationship that empowers you.” Henderson also encourages girls to “Have your own friends and your own goals.” The advice given to friends and family worried someone they love is in an abusive relationship is to tread lightly. Henderson said her ex-boyfriend worked to drive a wedge between her and her friends and family, and their criticism of him played into the idea that they were Romeo and Juliet against the world.

“What’s really important is if your friend is going through an abusive relationship, just listen to them. Be there for them,” Henderson said. But she also suggested visiting resources like LoveIsRespect.org or confiding in an adult you trust who is not necessarily your friend’s parent, which she believes would simply have pushed her further away.

Henderson also expressed concern that while schools stay virtually silent on the issue of teen relationship abuse, pop culture is perpetuating dating violence. The mega-hit Twilight franchise and MTV’s Jersey Shore.

Katie Ray-Jones said she is hoping to educate parents and teens on some signs to look out for. One is being conscious of the amount of time teens spend on the phone as well as social media, as well as establishing boundaries and consent. For instance, spending a lot of time texting is not unusual, but doing so because teens are expected to by a significant other is a warning sign. They also want to educate teens on the fact that they have a right not to give your boyfriend or girlfriend passwords to social media accounts or to take photos that make them uncomfortable.

Roberta Valente, a consultant who works with the Hotline, said laws are struggling to keep up with the changing digital landscape. “This is a new world for legislators,” she wrote in an email. Valente also wrote that those working in the domestic violence non-profit space are hopeful there will be more that can be done from a law enforcement standpoint eventually, particularly with efforts to seriously address cyber-stalking.

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In Henderon’s case, her boyfriend eventually served a short amount of time in jail for another crime but never faced any penalties for his alleged treatment of her. “It took me until I was 18 to learn there was such as thing as dating abuse.” Her hope is that by speaking out she can reach another girl earlier.

Visit http://www.loveisrespect.org for resources on teen dating violence.