Our cyberbullying work continues to take our research agenda in new and interesting directions. One phenomenon which we have been exploring in recent months is “electronic dating violence,” which we define as: “emotional or psychological harm in a romantic relationship perpetrated through the use of computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices.” The number of persons who have been victimized offline by romantic partners range from 10% to 47%, depending on how it is defined and measured in research studies. Research has also shown that teenagers are at a higher risk than adults when it comes to abuse by intimates. Since the vast, vast majority of teens have embraced the use of computers and cell phones, we believe it is important to consider how dating violence might be occurring via such devices.
There are some similarities between cyberbullying and electronic dating violence that should be mentioned. First, both naturally employ technology. Second, cyberbullying is largely perpetrated by and among known peers, as is aggression in romantic relationships (where youth typically select dating partners among their peer group). Third, both lead to specific negative emotional, psychological, physical, and behavioral outcomes. Finally, both also may have similar contributing factors such as personal insecurities and a need to demonstrate control. With regard to differences, cyberbullying tends to occur between individuals who do not like, and do not want to be around, each other. Electronic dating violence transpires between two people who are attracted to each other on some level.
There are many ways in which teens can use Internet-enabled devices to cause harm to a dating partner. Some may be excessively bold, sarcastic, and malicious to their significant other when communicating with them online for the same reasons that cyberbullies do. In addition, privacy violations can occur as perpetrators check up on, monitor, and even stalk their partners if they can easily access the latter’s computer or cell phone. They may also use textual, audio, picture, or video content stored on their electronic devices to blackmail, extort, or otherwise manipulate their partner into saying or doing something against their will.
To be sure, this content can be shared with a very large audience – a classroom of students, the entire student body, a neighborhood, the town, the entire world – with ease and speed either through the forwarding of a text or multimedia message, or through its uploading to Facebook or YouTube. Its “viral” nature, then, can greatly intensify the amount of victimization a partner suffers, knowing that the embarrassing or harmful content is being viewed and shared – perhaps repeatedly – by an incredible amount of people. The situation can become worse after realizing that it is sometimes difficult to work with Internet Service Providers and Content Service Providers to get the content removed in a timely manner.
It is interesting to note that motivations for teenage dating violence include anger and a felt need to demonstrate power. An adolescent can quickly send a scathing or harassing email or instant message to a girlfriend or boyfriend solely based on negative emotions, without taking the time to calm down and react rationally to a feeling or situation and without considering the implications of that textual content. Power can be readily exerted in a dating scenario because the victim’s past and present experiences with the abuser provide a unique relational dependency and history that make it difficult to resist or get away from online mistreatment or harm. This is much less true in adolescent relationships than in adult relationships (where there is sometimes a need for financial assistance and sometimes the presence of children), but there still often exists a power dynamic that may be exploited if the relationship is unbalanced and dysfunctional. Indeed, more suffering and pain may result from cyberbullying within a romantic relationship, as compared to cyberbullying among strangers, casual acquaintances, or even platonic friends. Finally, these technological devices allow abusers to feel constantly connected to (and within “reach” of) their dating partner, who often feels that he or she has no escape from the torment. This is enhanced by the fact that youth constantly have their phone with them day and night, and use it as their lifeline to maintain and grow relationships.
Clearly, the nuances of electronic dating violence merit our attention, inquiry, and response. Are you working with teens who are dealing with this problem? How have you tried to help them? What has worked best? We look forward to further discussing this in the weeks ahead.
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