What is Digital Abuse?


Technological innovation is often referred to as a double-edged sword. An appropriate comparison is to fire which can be useful to cook our food and keep us warm but can also cause us pain and devastation.

Perhaps the greatest validation of this metaphor is the use of technology in abusive and controlling relationships. Due to the vast technology that is now available at our finger tips, relationship violence – or domestic violence – can take place across numerous mediums and take form in a variety of new ways.

Today’s technological innovations and sharing culture have led to an evolution in the way people use the same behaviors that have always existed in relationship violence but has also birthed several new abusive and controlling tactics – particularly in teen dating relationships. To create a future free from relationship violence, it is vital that we both recognize digital abuse and provide support to those engaging in it in changing their behavior.


Relationship Violence and Technology

Digital abuse can be broadly defined as the use of technology to threaten, harass, coerce or stalk your partner in a relationship. In many cases, digital devices are used as a tool to enhance traditional abusive behaviors used to maintain power and control in a relationship. For example, threats, insults and harassment that used to be confined to face-to-face interactions and phone calls can now be communicated through text, email or social media.

“In my opinion, the social media and digital era has stunted some emotional growth and empathy building,” said Marcy Brakefield, an intervention specialist and therapist for Project PAVE. “It is easy to say something hurtful when the impact is invisible on the other side of the screen.”

There are numerous other abusive and controlling behaviors that have also evolved in the digital age. Isolation is no longer defined by physical barriers but can be enforced by dictating who someone can and can’t follow or be friends with on social media. In just a few seconds, explicit photos and sexts can be distributed to their entire family and social network. Rather than physically stalking them, their movements and activities can all be tracked from a phone. 

Technology has also enabled a completely new form of digitally-specific abusive behaviors. This includes forcing them to share their logins and passwords, spreading rumors online, hacking their social media accounts and creating fake profiles in their name.

“This could look like name-calling, using photos/videos to ‘hold over’ someone, or even persistent contact – likes, multiple (direct messages), recruiting friends, etc.,” Brakefield said. “Bullying and catfishing can also be common tactics – using memes, public forums or group chats to gain power.”

Although these behaviors can be used and experienced by anyone regardless of age, they are most often seen in abusive and controlling teen dating relationships.


Digital Abuse in Teen Relationships

The defining characteristic of Generation Z – individuals born between 1994-2010 – is their inseparable link with technology. Not knowing a world without the internet and growing up in a golden age of technological innovation has fundamentally altered the way they interact with each other. The case is no different for abusive and controlling relationships.   

“Young people today are exposed to technology much earlier and with more frequency compared to previous generations,” said Michelle Bryan, an outreach advocate for The Family Tree. “Most of us, including teens, are attached to our digital devices, therefore digital abuse can make someone vulnerable to experiencing abusive behaviors constantly.”

This constant presence of a platform for using abusive and controlling behaviors compounds the effects that dating violence can have on a teenager.

“It can be hard for someone to escape from these behaviors because it is the norm and expectation that we have access to our technology all the time,” Bryan said. “This can feel scary and overwhelming and impact many aspects of a teen’s life including their school experience, relationships and privacy.”


Importance of Early Intervention

Identifying teenagers and young adults engaging in digitally abusive behaviors is a major key to creating a future free from relationship violence. If they receive help in recognizing these behaviors and are provided support in changing, they can enjoy a happier life with healthy relationships.

One of the most important environments for these interventions to take place is in the home. Brakefield recommends that parents who recognize their child using abusive dating behaviors should respond with support, understanding their point of view and exploring personal values related to self-image and respect.

“It is important to understand that young people often function the way they know how, and sometimes that is with abusive behavior,” she said. “I encourage parents to build family values, support respectful self-expression, and model effective communication styles in the home and in their own relationships.”

There are also times when a teen won’t want to listen to their parents, doesn’t have that family support system or is living in an abusive and controlling home. This is where friends of a teen using abusive and controlling behaviors in their relationship can play an important role.

“Peer relationships are so important and powerful,” Bryan said. “Let them know that both people have the right to be in a healthy relationship and express concern about their friend’s behaviors.”

If you or someone you know is engaging in digital abuse in a relationship, you can help them change. Call or text the Stand Up Colorado Helpline at 855-9-StandUp (855-978-2638) to speak with a trained professional today or visit standupcolorado.org to find a treatment professional in your area.

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