Digital Abuse in Relationships: What You Need to Know

Digital connectivity can be a powerful and positive tool for increased communication and intimacy between romantic partners. However, when one partner resorts to digital means to hurt the other, it can have harmful consequences. To better understand how, and how often, digital technology is used by domestic abusers to victimize their partners, we teamed up with the Data & Society research institute and talked to over 3,000 Americans ages 16 and older about their experiences. Here’s what we learned:

What does digital domestic abuse look like?
Digital domestic abuse experiences span the relatively benign—albeit likely irritating—to the possibly damaging, and include: revenge porn, sexually harassing a partner online, controlling a partner’s social media accounts (e.g., demanding social media account passwords, determining who a partner can and cannot “Friend” on Facebook), requiring that a partner keep their phone with them at all times to respond to calls and texts, and using technology to monitor the other person’s actions both on and offline.

It’s important to say that digital interactions where both people agree to what is going on are not digital domestic abuse. For example, sexting is not always a problem behavior. About 7% of teens sext, and it can be a part of healthy sexual exploration [1] and even a way to avoid having sex [2].  Plus, you can’t get an STD from a picture! If one person is forcing or coercing the other to sext or uses the sext in way that the other person doesn’t agree to however, then it’s digital abuse.

How prevalent is digital domestic abuse?
Digital abuse in romantic relationships is not uncommon: 1 out of every 8 people who’d been in a romantic relationship had experienced at least one form of digital domestic abuse we asked about. The most common forms were having been monitored by a current or former partner and having been purposefully embarrassed online by a current or former partner [3].

We found that men and women were equally likely to have experienced digital domestic abuse, suggesting that we need to step beyond our assumptions that men are the only perpetrators—and women are only victims—of domestic abuse. We also found that the burden of digital domestic abuse weighs more heavily on certain groups. Of particular note, people under 30 years old were three times as likely as people 30 and older to have experienced digital harassment perpetrated by a partner [3]. And 38% of people who identified as lesbian, gay, and/or bisexual (LGB) had experienced digital domestic abuse [3].

What is the impact of digital domestic abuse?
The effects of digital domestic abuse can last long after the experience ends. We found a connection between a history of digital domestic abuse and negative attitudes towards online spaces: More than one third of people who had ever been digitally harassed by a romantic partner in the past also felt that people were “mostly unkind” to one another online. Internet users who had been targeted by a romantic partner were more annoyed, angry, worried, or scared by subsequent online experiences than those who were targeted by someone else [3].

What now?
There is hope, and there is help. The vast majority of victims of intimate partner digital abuse do not turn to domestic abuse support centers, hotlines, or websites for support. While it is purely speculative, this is perhaps because 74% did not say they were scared by their experiences [3]. It may also be that most people who have these experiences do not see themselves as victims of domestic abuse. Perhaps, too, some people may be concerned that their digital domestic abuse will not be taken seriously or that they are uncomfortable reaching out for help despite their distress. People may simply not be aware of available resources as well.

If you or someone you know is suffering from digital abuse, there are resources available. The following sites offer talk, text, and online chat functions if you would like to seek support:

•    The National Domestic Abuse Hotline
•    LoveisRespect

If you do not feel safe using one of your own devices, visit a local library or ask a friend to access these resources through on of their digital devices.

It is important to be alert, but not alarmist, when it comes to new technologies. In arming ourselves with knowledge about what digital domestic abuse is and how widespread it is, we are bringing this often hidden form of abuse out into the open. With increased awareness, the fight against domestic abuse, in all its forms, is strengthened.

If you want to read the full report, you can get it here.

Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research.

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Acknowledgments: Thank you to Emily Goldstein and Hannah Madison for their contributions to this blog.

References:

[1] Ybarra ML. A Snapshot of Who Is Sexting in Adolescence. 2016. Accessible at: https://innovativepublichealth.org/blog/infographic-a-snapshot-of-who-is…

[2] Lenhart A. Teens and Sexting. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project; Dec 15 2009. Accessible at: http://www.pewinternet.org/2009/12/15/teens-and-sexting/

[3] Ybarra ML, Price-Feeney M, Lenhart A, Zickuhr K. Intimate Partner Digital Abuse. San Clemente, CA: Center For Innovative Public Health Research;2017. Accessible at: https://innovativepublichealth.org/wp-content/uploads/4_Intimate-Partner…