An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Textual Harassment

For some teens, dating abuse has gone digital

Sarah*, 16, thought she was the luckiest girl in the world. She remembers the first time her ex-boyfriend took her out on a date.

“Brandon gave me flowers and paid so much attention to me that day,” she recalls. “He said he only wanted to be with me when we go out.”

To keep tabs on her, Brandon relentlessly sent her text messages every 10 minutes. One day, Sarah was pressured into sending a sexually explicit photo of herself to Brandon. “It hurt, but I didn’t want to lose him,” she explains.

After Brandon posted her sexy photo on Facebook, a humiliated Sarah changed schools and found a new group of friends.  

Sarah’s not alone. One out of 3 teens reportedly experiences some form of emotional or physical abuse from a dating partner. And for many of them, social networking sites can be as brutal as physical attack played out in public.

Digital dating abuse is all too common among middle and high school students, says Melissa Fleschler Peskin, PhD, assistant professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health.

“Dating violence is the victimization of an individual using emotional, physical or sexual violence,” Peskin says. “And perpetrators are using texting and social media sites to stalk, injure or harass their victims.”

On the rise

The numbers don’t lie. Teenagers prefer texting over talking. Research shows that the average teen sends about 100 texts a day to his or her partner, friends and family members.

And while many teens use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to send appropriate communication, abusive boyfriends and girlfriends use the networks to attack their partner with several key strokes.

Besides sharing sexually explicit photos and messages—a not-so-new practice known as “sexting”—online abuse can take many forms and is meant to insult, intimidate and even threaten in some cases.

Research on teen digital dating abuse is woefully inadequate. But a national study called the Youth Internet Safety Survey found that while sexual solicitation has decreased, online harassment is on the rise.

“This survey points to the fact that digital abuse isn’t going away,” Peskin says. “We need more longitudinal studies to understand the risk factors for dating violence in general.”

Peskin and her School of Public Health colleagues looked at the prevalence of sexting after studying more than 1,000 10th-graders in an inner-city school district. They found that 1 out of 5 students reportedly sent a sexually explicit photo, video or text message.

Teens who are in a controlling or abusive relationship are more likely to engage in other risky behaviors like drug use and binge drinking, Peskin adds. A young teen who has been abused or exposed to family violence may also be more likely to become an abuse victim or perpetrator.

Sarah is lucky. For some teens, digital dating abuse can be life-threatening. Eating disorders, anxiety, depression and suicide attempts are just some of the troubling side effects. A serious case of abuse can have lasting effects for both the abuser and the victim and can follow them into adulthood.

Understanding the risks

The old adage, “it takes a village” rings true when it comes to helping teens form healthy relationships. 

Parents can serve as positive role models and help keep the lines of communication open with their teens. Teens can associate themselves with other peers who engage in healthy relationship behaviors. Schools can implement evidence-based dating violence prevention programs to help teens manage their emotions and learn effective conflict resolution and problem-solving skills.

To better understand the risks of digital dating abuse, Peskin and fellow researcher Susan Tortolero, PhD, associate professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences and director of the School of Public Health’s Center for Health Promotion and Prevention Research, are adapting a highly effective interactive program originally developed to prevent teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The program—called It’s Your Game…Keep It Real—is helping delay the age at which middle school children start initiating sex, which lowers their risk for teen pregnancy and acquiring STDs.

Peskin hopes to replicate the success of the original program and implement it as a dating violence prevention program. She says their initial findings in the randomized controlled study of 7th-graders showed a positive effect on kids’ sexual behaviors.

“The research says we need to start earlier and teach kids how to have a healthy relationship,” Peskin adds. “The dating violence part of the program is an extra-added benefit.”

Healthy versus unhealthy relationships

Many teens don’t recognize that they’re victims of dating abuse because they don’t know what an unhealthy relationship actually looks like. It’s Your Game compared the differences between a healthy dating relationship and an unhealthy one.

Healthy relationships require space, honesty and open communication. Peskin says it’s critical for couples to respect each other’s privacy and to talk to each other. 

“But just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you have to constantly be together,” Peskin adds.

“If your partner is exerting some power over you, restricting your access to your friends and constantly monitoring you, it’s time to take action,” Peskin says. “Talk to a family member or trusted friend. The more you communicate from the start, the more you can prevent abuse from occurring.”

Peskin offers a few tips to help young teens create and maintain a healthy relationship in the digital age:

  • If something is bothering you, tell your partner. Texting may be a good way to end a bad relationship, especially if you don’t feel safe.
  • Seek positive influences from your peers. If you hang around teens who are bullies, you may end up becoming one yourself.
  • Connect with your support system of friends, family members, teachers and peer advocates to get the emotional support you need.
  • For many teens, passwords are considered the new class ring. However, no one should ever share passwords to social media accounts, email and cell phones.
  • Update your privacy settings. You can disable the check-in or tracking feature on your social media profile. Change the default settings on your social media accounts to help control your privacy.
  • Don’t post information about your friends or loved ones on social networking sites. For example, never reveal their current location or where they hang out. It's possible their partner will use your post to find them.
  • Put down that cell phone once in a while. It’s OK to unplug and spend quality time alone or with your family.
*Name has been changed to protect victim's identity.
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