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Digital Dating Abuse Among Teens

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

With each passing year, more and more adolescent development occurs digitally, through online and virtual spaces. This is, of course, a function of the digital age. Before adults rush to condemn the fact that for adolescents, many developmental milestones, breakthroughs, and foundational experiences occur online, we should pause, and look to our own lives to understand that many of our significant life events, breakthroughs, and milestones occur in virtual spaces, as well.

We may seek and find employment online. We may present a career-changing report for work online via videoconferencing and screen sharing. And there’s no doubt that we communicate about life events both minor and major through various digital platforms. From work emails to work texts, from social emails to social texts, from social media posts to direct messaging on social media, from dating sites to parenting groups, from online therapy to virtual birthday parties, we all need to recognize that teens are not the only ones for whom many aspects of family, work, and social life have migrated toward digital spaces.

One aspect of adolescent life that has migrated to digital spaces is dating. Actual dates still happen in real time, but a lion’s share of courtship, communication, and relating occur via text, direct messages, and social media posts or chat threads on a wide variety of platforms.

The digital world is a human creation, which means, unfortunately, that some of the less admirable aspects of human behavior have also migrated to digital spaces. This article addresses one of those behaviors that’s increasing as we increase our time online: digital dating abuse. We’ll define what digital dating abuse is, offer prevalence statistics, and finish with advice about what victims of digital dating abuse can do to stay healthy, safe, and whole in an increasingly volatile digital world.

What is Abuse?

A generic definition of abuse reads like this:

“Abuse is the cruel or violent treatment of another person, especially regularly or repeatedly.”

You can find that definition in any dictionary, and most of know that already. What most of understand, but may not recognize explicitly, is that abuse takes many forms. It’s not just physical, although that is the most easily recognizable form of abuse, so we’ll include it here. Abuse can be:

  • Physical:
    • Shoving
    • Punching
    • Grabbing and not letting go
    • Slapping
    • Pinching
    • Hitting
    • Kicking
    • Hair pulling
    • Choking
  • Emotional/Verbal:
    • Name calling
    • Threats of any sort
    • Extreme jealousy
    • Unreasonable ultimatums
    • Controlling what you do, wear, say, who you spend your time with, or how you spend your time
  • Sexual
    • Unwanted kissing
    • Unwanted touching
    • Forced intercourse
    • Forced sexual activity of any kind

In the 21st century, abuse can also be digital. Digital abuse includes anything we mention above that occurs in any type of digital space. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on digital dating abuse, which is becoming increasingly more common among teens.

What is Digital Dating Abuse?

The website LoveisRespect offers the following definition of digital dating abuse:

“Digital dating abuse is the use of technologies like texting and social media to bully, harass, stalk, or intimidate a partner. This behavior is often a form of verbal or emotional abuse, conducted online.”

They go on to remind teenagers that:

“All communication in a healthy relationship is respectful, whether in person, online, or over the phone. It’s never okay for your partner to use words or actions to harm you, lower your self-esteem, or manipulate you.”

We want every teen in the country to read and understand that. It’s worth repeating: all communication in a healthy relationship is respectful and it’s never okay for your partner to use words or actions to harm you.

No exceptions, no excuses.

Here are examples of actions that meet the criteria for digital dating abuse, as defined by the experts at LoveIsRespect:

  • Controlling who someone can be friends with, interact with, communicate with, like, or follow on social media
  • Sending any message, email, or digital communication that’s negative, insulting, or threatening
  • Tracking, monitoring, or stalking through social media
  • Posting any digital media meant to humiliate, embarrass, or insult
  • Pressuring someone to sext or send sexually explicit digital content
  • Sending someone unwanted sexually explicit digital content
  • Forcing or trying to pressure someone to share account passwords
  • Stealing account passwords
  • Incessant texting, messaging, or posting that makes someone feel like they’re not allowed to be away from their devices for any period of time
  • Taking someone’s phone or device and checking through digital media, text records, or phone records
  • Surveilling someone with third-party technology like spyware on computers or tablets, GPS trackers in cars, and/or GPS trackers on phones

That’s what digital dating abuse is.

Next, we’ll share the statistics related to digital dating violence that every parent and teen needs to know and understand.

Digital Dating Abuse: Facts and Figures

Digital dating violence is not exactly a new phenomenon. It’s recent, but now new. That means there’s research on the topic, which includes prevalence data – meaning how much and how often it occurs – but to date, that data offers conflicting evidence on the topic.

A study published in January 2020, however, offers the first data collected from a sample set large enough to make population-level generalizations and conclusions. The study, called “Digital Dating Abuse Among a National Sample of U.S. Youth” included data collected from 2,218 U.S. middle and high school students (age 12-17) who say they’ve been in a romantic relationship.

Here’s what the researchers found:

  • Overall Prevalence:
    • 28% of students reported being the victim of digital dating abuse
      • 32% of males
      • 24% of females
    • Mental health factors:
      • Teens who reported depressive symptoms were four times more likely to experience digital dating abuse
    • Behavioral factors:
      • Teens who reported engaging in sex were significantly more likely to experience digital dating abuse
      • Teens who reported engaging in sexting were significantly more likely to experience digital dating abuse
    • Other factors:
      • Teens who were victims of cyberbullying were significantly more likely to experience digital dating abuse

While teen girls are more likely to be victims of stalking in general – which includes offline harassment – teen boys are more likely to be victims of digital abuse. However, the relationship between digital dating abuse, stalking, and intimate partner violence should not be ignored. It’s important to understand the overall statistics on intimate partner violence so we can contextualize the data on digital dating abuse.

Intimate Partner Violence: Prevalence and Consequences

This next set of data comes from LoveIsRespect and the National Intimate Partner and Domestic Violence Survey (NISVS):

  • 20% of women and 14% of men experience physical, emotional, or sexual violence during their teen years.
  • 33% of women and 25% of men will experience relationship violence at some point during their lives.
  • 5 million high school students in the U.S. experience physical abuse from a dating partner each year.
  • 33% of teens who experience violence in their relationships tell someone about it

It’s also important to understand the long-term emotional consequence of intimate partner violence. This data applies to teen males and females:

  • 38% of people who experience sexual violence also experience problems at work or school
  • 37% experience problems with family and friends, including:
    • Increase in arguments
    • Decrease in feelings of trust for friends/family
  • 84% of people who experience intimate partner violence also experience moderate to severe emotional issues
  • 79% of people who experience sexual violence or assault by a friend or acquaintance also experience moderate to severe emotional issues

It should be clear that digital dating abuse, stalking, and intimate partner violence are real problems in the U.S., and when teens experience dating abuse or violence of any kind, it affects them for the rest of their lives.

That brings us to our next topic: what people who experience digital dating abuse should do when they realize what’s happening to them.

Digital Dating Abuse: What Teens Can Do

When asked who they go to for relationship advice, a majority of participants in a nationwide poll said they go to their best friend. That’s good: talking to anyone about relationships and relationship problems is a good idea. Best friends can stick by you when things are hard, support you as you navigate tricky things like dating, and offer comfort, and advice if you’re the victim of digital dating abuse.

However, the experts at LoveIsRespect have additional advice about digital dating abuse, stalking, and intimate partner violence: it starts with general safety, awareness, and prevention.

To achieve those three goals, they recommend intentionally expanding your support system. Here’s are the three people they say teens should include in their network, in addition to best friends:

1. A Trusted Adult in The Community

A trusted adult can be a coach, teacher, counselor, or another mentor. They can help a teen who’s in a digitally abusive relationship create safety plans to put in place at school and during any school-related events, including extracurricular activities and sports.

2. Parents

Parents are invested in the physical, psychological, and emotional safety of their teenage children. Therefore, when a teen is dating, they should talk about what’s going on with their parents – especially if they end up in an abusive situation. Parents can help teens with safety plans, take the lead on contacting school officials or the police, and provide financial support for therapists and other mental health support if their teen experiences trauma such as interpersonal dating violence or rape.

3. An Advocate

There are several online support groups and helplines that offer 24/7 assistance to victims of abuse, dating violence, or digital dating abuse. Calls are free and anonymous. A trained advocate can help a teen determine whether they’re in an unhealthy and abusive relationship, and help determine what steps to take if they are.

Digital Dating Abuse: Documentation

Setting up a strong, supportive network of friends and adults is the first step in preventing digital dating abuse. However, if a teen experiences digital dating abuse, or relationship violence or abuse of any sort, the most important thing they can do is document what happens. Proper documentation can ensure accountability for the perpetrator of the abuse or violence, and it’s also the first thing the police will ask for if a teen reports digital abuse or dating violence.

Here’s how to document digital dating abuse:

Documenting Digital Dating Abuse

  1. Write it down. Keep a journal of any red flag incidents, including how they made you feel.
  2. Record what others said. Make a written log of what the other person, you, or anyone else said before, during, or after the incident.
  3. The facts. Make sure to record the date, time, location, and detailed descriptions of what happened.
  4. Pictures of things. Make a visual record of any physical damages to objects, if that happens, such as broken windows, slashed tires, damaged school items like books, or broken furniture.
  5. Pictures of injuries. Make sure to record, in pictures, any injuries, whether large or small.
  6. Go to the doctor. If an injury occurs, even if it’s not visible to the eye, a formal visit to a doctor will create reliable third-party documentation of the result of any abusive incident.
  7. Go to the police. Report any abuse incidents to the police immediately.

It’s also important to preserve all documentation and make records of any abusive content. Teens who experience digital dating abuse should:

  • Print or save any abusive emails
  • Print or take screeenshots of abusive texts or pictures
  • Take screenshots of or print abusive or harassing social media content
  • Save any abusive voicemails

Teens who experience digital dating abuse – and their parents –  need to realize that it any of the behavior meets the criteria for stalking, then it’s illegal and the law is on their side. The key to leveraging the legal system to protect them is what we share above: extensive, timely, and well-preserved documentation of any and all red-flag behavior.

Staying Safe in the Digital World

While digital dating abuse is, indeed, a relatively new phenomenon, the laws around stalking are not new, and police enforce them. Therefore, if a teen thinks they’re being abused online, on social media, or in emails or text messages, documentation can help them hold the perpetrator accountable, prevent further incidents, and keep them safe.

That’s one part of the equation. Another part is psychological and emotional safety: that’s what a strong support system is for. Teens who experience digital dating abuse should reach out to their support network and tell them what’s happening. If parents and friends are not enough, then we recommend professional mental health support: this can prevent residual emotions from developing into pathologies such as PTSD, depression, risky behavior, or substance misuse.

Teens and families can also use the following free online resources:

  • The Love Is Respect website is excellent. It’s the source we used for much of the information in this article
    • Call 1.866.331.9474
    • Text LOVEIS to 22522
    • Chat live from the footer of the main page, linked to above
  • The Start Strong – Building Healthy Teen Relationships website is also a helpful place to go for reliable information on teen dating relationships.

Finally, for victims of sexual violence of any sort, the following hotlines are free, anonymous, and available 24/7/365.

  • Victim Connect Hotline: 1 (855) 484-2846
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233 En Espanol: 1 (800) 787-3224
  • National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1 (800) 656-4673
  • The National Sexual Assault Online Hotline: https://hotline.rainn.org/online/

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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