Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Use of Technology in Dating Violence

I've decided to write something different this time. Like other articles I've written it's about technology, Law, and how the evolving interplay between them affects people. Unlike my previous articles though, there's nothing at all enjoyable in researching or writing about this distressingly prevalent issue.

On January 31, 2011 President Obama issued a presidential proclamation recognizing February as National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Although this is only the second year that the month of February has been so recognized, dating violence has long been an issue affecting many of our country's teenagers and young adults.

According to a 2009 study by the CDC, ten percent of teens report having been physically abused within the past twelve months by a dating partner.[1] Furthermore, by the time students have graduated from college 44% of them will have been in an abusive relationship.[2] As February is National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, I'm writing about how technology is often used in abusive relationships.

First, it's important to note that technology is not at fault for this abuse, but like any other tool it can be misused by abusers. It's also important to note that anybody in an abusive relationship could find technology being leveraged against them by an abuser.

However, as teenagers and college students are heavy users of technology they are disproportionately affected by these abusive practices. According to a 2007 study 67% of teens own cell phones, 93% use the internet, and nearly half visit social networking sites daily.[5]

Mobile Phones & Texting

A 2007 survey revealed that one-third of teens say they have received up to thirty text messages in one hour by their dating partner demanding to know where they are, who they are with, or what they are doing.[6] Horror stories include a 16-year-old whose ex-boyfriend paid four friends to help him send abusive text messages while he was asleep or at work.[8]

Unfortunately it's not easy to define what is abusive. "If you're getting 50 messages an hour and you want 50 messages an hour, that's not a problem," says Marjorie Gilberg, executive director of Break the Cycle, "But if you're getting 50 messages an hour and you don't even want one, that's very different."[8]

It's also important to note that the phone that a teen was given by his or her parents may not be the only phone they have; one in six teens have been in a relationship where their partner has bought a cell phone or minutes for them.[6]

Social Networking Sites & Passwords

A 2009 study by MTV and the Associated Press revealed that over ten percent of the teens surveyed had previously had a boyfriend or girlfriend demand to hand over their password. Further, 68% of those that shared their passwords have been a target of abuse via technology as compared to 44% of those who had not shared their passwords.[3] Additionally, nearly one in five (18%) teens say their dating partner used a networking site like Facebook or MySpace to harass them.[9]


The first thing that a teen should do in the event that they believe they may be in an abusive relationship is to speak to a parent, teacher, or adult that they trust about their concerns. If they are uncomfortable speaking with somebody they know, in the U.S. they can call the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline 24/7 at 1-866-331-9474.

Although many parents know to talk with their kids about the dangers of revealing too much about themselves online to strangers it's important they also let their teen know the potential for abusive behavior even with those to whom they are closest.

Mitru Ciarlante, the director of the Youth Initiative at the National Center for Victims of Crime in Washington, D.C. has some suggested questions that will help parents and their children engage in a useful dialogue:

* Does the teen become angry and express hostility if text messages and other electronic communication are not answered?

* Does interaction (via text, email, and phone) with the partner seem to result in moodiness, anger, sadness, fear, or anxiety? Is this a frequent reaction?

* Does the youth panic about needing to return calls or messages to the partner? [7]

Break the Cycle suggests that the abused parties be sure to preserve any electronic communications that could potentially be used as evidence in criminal or civil proceedings.
"Saving voicemails, text messages, and emails will arm them with the tools they will need if they do decide to pursue civil or criminal remedies in the future [...] Voicemails can be recorded with a digital voice recorder; text messages and emails should be printed to avoid unintentional deletion. Any communication made on a website should be immediately printed because the content can be changed in an instant and the relevant piece of evidence lost."[4]

President Obama's proclamation on January 31, 2011 included an important recognition of the impact that technology has had on this serious issue: "Technology such as cell phones, email, and social networking websites play a major role in many teenagers’ lives, but these tools are sometimes tragically used for control, stalking, and victimization. Emotional abuse using digital technology, including frequent text messages, threatening emails, and the circulation of embarrassing messages or photographs without consent, can be devastating to young teens."[9]

It's encouraging that this issue is beginning to receive some of the attention that it deserves. This Valentines' Day [2011] marked the five-year anniversary of the last time I ever spoke with my teenaged daughter; the following day she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.

It is in her memory that I run Jennifer Ann's Group, a non-profit charity dedicated to increasing awareness about teen dating violence in an effort to prevent future tragedies. Our program "Gaming Against Violence" is an evidence-based solution using video games to prevent teen dating violence. All games are free and can be used by educators in the classroom; by parents seeking to engage their teens; or by teenagers seeking the means to empower themselves in dating relationships. More information available at:

For further information and online resources about teen dating violence:

Jennifer Ann's Group: Free online resources about teen dating violence

National Dating Abuse Helpline: Love is Respect has free printable materials and online quizzes

Citations with links to studies and articles:

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance—United States, 2009. MMWR 2010;59(No.SS-5).

[2] Christine M. Forke, MSN, CRNP; Rachel K. Myers, BA; Marina Catallozzi, MD; Donald F. Schwarz, MD, MPH, Relationship Violence Among Female and Male College Undergraduate Students, Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2008;162(7):634-641.

[3] A Thin Line: 2009 AP-MTV Digital Abuse Study.

[4] Technology and Teen Dating Violence, Issue Brief No. 4, Teen Center: Teen Dating Violence Technical Assistance Center, Break the Cycle.

[5] Lenhart, A., Madden, M., Macgill, A.R. & Smith, A. (2007). Teens and Social Media: The use of social media gains a greater foothold in teen life as they embrace the conversational nature of interactive online media. PEW Internet & American Life Project.

[6] Picard, P. (2007). Tech Abuse in Teen Relationships Study. Liz Claiborne Inc.

[7] Ciarlante, Mitru, Responding to Technology Abuse in Teen Dating Violence, The Prevention Researcher, February 6, 2009.

[8] The silent weapon in dating violence: texting, The Houston Chronicle, June 22, 2010.

[9] Presidential Proclamation--National Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, 2011.

[Update: November 21, 2016. I've removed two sites which are no longer focused on preventing teen dating violence and instead sell weight loss plans and "how to" guides for dating. This is a disappointing (and arguably fraudulent) misuse of these domains. (I'll add that the large organizations which created the initial sites have a responsibility to maintain those domains after promoting them!) Our hope is that the rest of this information is still useful even though it was first written in 2009 and then updated in 2011. The statistics and suggestions are still timely and, we believe, helpful.]