What Teens and Parents Need to Know About Digital Abuse

teen girl upset looking at smartphone

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Most dating relationships have typical ups and downs. Couples may get angry, disagree, and even breakup. But the rollercoaster that teens are on when digital dating abuse is taking place is anything but normal.

In this situation, the relationship heads down a dark and treacherous path of control, jealousy, manipulation, and intimidation.

And because technology is at the center of most teens' lives, it happens quite often, with 1 in 4 teens in the U.S. experiencing digital abuse from a dating partner each year.

In fact, a national survey of 2,218 students ages 12 to 17 found that 28% of teens had been a victim of digital abuse.

What Is Digital Abuse?

Digital abuse occurs when someone uses technology to manipulate, intimidate, and control another person.

While it can take many different forms, this type of abuse typically involves bullying, harassment, stalking, and even sexual coercion. Typically, digital abuse occurs in teen dating relationships but it also can occur on online dating apps as well.

Digital abuse often is accompanied by other forms of abuse including emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and even physical abuse.

Of teens who are dealing with digital abuse, 96% also face psychological abuse, physical violence, and sexual abuse from their partners. In fact, the additional abuse they experience is 2.5 to 5 times as frequent as those who are in abusive relationships that did not involve digital abuse.

Just like other forms of abuse, digital abuse is about power and control. The person choosing to engage in digital abuse demands to know passwords, keeps tabs on their partner using technology, texts excessively, controls social media use, demands the partner engage in sexting, and uses various forms of technology to control and monitor their partner.

How to Identify Digital Abuse in a Relationship

Because technology is such an integral part of a teen's life, many do not realize that what they're experiencing is abuse until it becomes a severe issue. In fact, it's common—especially in the beginning of the relationship—to assume the early signs of digital abuse are actually an indication of their partner's love for them.

Many times, teens don't realize that the jealousy, possessiveness, and excessive texting are the first signs of control and not a sign of love. Then, by the time the abuse has escalated to more serious forms of control like demanding to know where they are at all times, limiting who they can interact with on social media, monitoring their messages and emails, and stalking them online, they are already deeply entrenched in the relationship and breaking free of the abuse becomes more of a challenge.

For this reason, it's important that both teens and parents recognize the signs of digital abuse before it becomes a pattern of behavior in the relationship. Here are some signs that a teen's partner is engaging in digital abuse.

Digital Abuse Through Smartphones and Laptops

Most of the time, teens who engage in digital abuse will rely on smartphones and laptops as the tools for not only perpetuating their abuse but also to monitor and control your teen. If you notice your teen is frantic to respond to text messages or that they are receiving a significant number of messages, you may want to investigate.

Here are some examples of digital abuse using a smartphone or laptop as the weapon.

  • Sends an excessive number of text messages including when your teen is with family, at school, at work, or even sleeping
  • Expects your teen to be available digitally to them at all hours of the day
  • Gets angry if your teen does not respond to their messages immediately and may even engage in emotional or physical abuse later
  • Threatens your teen with consequences if they don't respond to messages
  • Sends your teen threatening, insulting, demeaning, and manipulative text messages, voicemails, or emails
  • Demands to know where your teen is at all times and will text or call until they respond
  • Requires your teen to "share their location" or use another type of GPS tracking system as a way to monitor your teen's whereabouts
  • Demands passwords for their smartphone and email accounts
  • Reads your teen's text messages, emails, and online chats
  • Sends your teen explicit photos and videos
  • Pressures your teen to engage in sexting and then uses those photos as a way to exert additional control
  • Installs spyware on your teen's smartphone or computer as a way of monitoring their actions

Digital Abuse Through Social Media

Social media has become a significant way in which digital abuse is perpetrated by teens.

Because social media allows your teen's activities and photos to be viewed by large numbers of people, teens who often engage in abuse will see these interactions as a threat to the relationship and often become jealous and controlling when it comes to your teen's social media use.

If you notice a change in your teen's behavior when it comes to social media, you may want to dig a little deeper to see what's going on. Here are some ways in which teens use social media to abuse their dating partners.

  • Tells your teen who they can and cannot be friends with on social media
  • Monitors your teen's social media accounts and gets angry or jealous of the attention they receive
  • Uses the "check-in" function on social media accounts to monitor and keep tabs on your teen
  • Questions your teen about places they have been and who they have been with
  • Forces your teen to remove social media posts or pictures of themself that attract attention or are liked by a lot of people
  • Sets up fake social media accounts as a way to spy on your teen online or to try to catch them cheating on the relationship
  • Requires your teen to ask for permission to post something online
  • Uses social media to demean, humiliate, and embarrass your teen after a breakup
  • Impersonates or cyberbullies your teen online by hacking into their account or setting up a fake account—especially after a breakup

How to Prevent Digital Abuse

No teen enters a dating relationship with the expectation that they might be abused. But, unfortunately, digital abuse is quite common in teen relationships.

For this reason, you and your teen need to take every precaution to ensure they are digitally safe. Here are a few tips on how your teen can exercise caution when it comes to the digital aspect of relationships.

  • Remind your teen that they have the right to feel safe in their relationships.
  • Make sure your teen knows that a healthy relationship involves mutual respect and a life outside of the relationship including friends and activities.
  • Remind your teen not to share passwords with anyone, even their dating partner.
  • Encourage your teen not to use functions like "check-ins" on social media or location sharing apps on their phone.
  • Remind your teen that their smartphone is their personal property and they should not hand it over for someone else to use including their partner.
  • Encourage your teen to remove the location information from their photos before sharing them online.
  • Help your teen establish secure passwords and privacy settings on social media accounts and to implement the safety precaution of reviewing all photos they are tagged in before they are posted online.

A Word From Verywell

If your teen is experiencing digital abuse, it can seem overwhelming but there is help available. Start by talking to your teen about what you're seeing and ask for their thoughts and feelings on the relationship.

Sometimes teens do not realize that what they are going through is not normal. Or, they may be too afraid of their partner to know how to end things. But together, you can find a safe way for your teen to end the relationship.

Try to avoid demanding your teen breakup or end things. Instead, empower them to make the decision on their own. Too many times, a parent's demands will have an opposite effect and will bind the two teens closer together.

They start to develop a mindset of "us against the world." Take it slow and ask questions. Eventually, your teen will see that this relationship is unhealthy.

In the meantime, there are resources available to help both you and your teen. For instance, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE anytime day or night to talk to an advocate over the phone or via a live online chat.

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2 Sources
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  1. Urban Institute. Digitizing abuse infographic.

  2. Hinduja S, Patchin JW. Digital dating abuse among a national sample of U.S. YouthJ Interpers Violence. January 8, 2020. doi:10.1177/0886260519897344