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Digital harassment is the new means of domestic abuse

Digital harassment is the new means of domestic abuse

When most hear the words “domestic violence,” the image of someone physically battered comes to mind. But technology is increasingly replacing fists as the weapon of choice in abusive relationships.

Katie Ray-Jones, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, explained that one of the goals of Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month this February is to educate teens and their parents about the perils of dating abuse in all its forms. Ray-Jones explained that in recent years they have seen a significant increase in the number of girls contacting the Hotline to report treatment by their boyfriends that didn’t fit traditional definitions of violence but certainly constituted abuse.

“What we’re hearing a lot on the hotline and prompted us to engage in a digital abuse awareness strategy was a lot of young people were talking about their partner—boyfriend or girlfriend—constantly texting them and if they don’t respond in appropriate time there are repercussions and a fight breaks out,” she said. Others reported their partners “constantly texting them to know where they are and who they are talking to.”

Some reported their boyfriends threatened to post demeaning photos of them on social media if the teens disobeyed their commands. Others said their boyfriends set up fake Facebook accounts to test whether or not they were interacting with members of the opposite sex without permission. In what sounded like a particularly extreme case of technology being used as a form of control, one teen reported her boyfriend would text her on a designated schedule so he could be sure she wasn’t with someone else cheating. When he would sleep, he had his friends continue texting her on the schedule, and whether she was trying to sleep or not she was expected to reply or face physical violence. This story sounded hard to believe until I spoke with Brittny Henderson a 23-year-old victim of dating abuse, much of it carried out through technology before allegedly escalating to physical violence.

Henderson was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin when she attended a speech on dating abuse. The speaker was sharing the story of his daughter who had been in an abusive relationship. “Everything he said about her had happened to me,” she said. “That presentation hit home and it hit hard. It opened my eyes to the fact that I had been in abusive relationship.” It was also “the first time I’d even heard the term dating abuse,” she said.

As a shy high-school freshman, Henderson was pursued by senior who was a popular football star. She felt so in awe that he expressed interest in her that she never questioned the appropriateness of some of his behavior. Initially it began with him regularly critiquing her appearance, reminding her that many girls wondered why he had chosen to be with “someone like her.” But the real warning sign she now realizes was the amount of time he expected her to be available to him by phone. Henderson explained that he would often spend time at her home when they weren’t at school together, and after her parents would ask him to leave, he would call her and ask to stay on the phone with him for the entire drive home. After both dressed for bed, he would call her again. “I would wake up to his voice screaming at me on the phone because I had fallen asleep,” she said.

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