Digital Dating Abuse: Many Teens, More Often Boys, Are Being Harassed Online By A Partner


Study author: “Girls may use more violence on their boyfriends to try to solve their relational problems, while boys may try to constrain their aggressive impulses when trying to negotiate discord with their girlfriends.”


BOCA RATON, Fla. — A new study may make you long for the days of notes being passed back and forth in class stating “do you like me? Yes or no.” Life is infinitely more complicated for today’s youth than it was for generations past. Adolescents are constantly in contact with each other thanks to the internet, smartphones, and social media. While all of that technology can certainly be used in a positive way, often times it leads to cyber bullying and harassment. Now, researchers from Florida Atlantic University are shedding light on yet another problem the internet has created for teenagers: digital dating abuse.

Defined as using technology to repeatedly harass a love interest, partner, or crush in order to coerce, control, intimidate, threaten, or just plain old annoy, digital dating abuse has developed into a disturbingly common phenomenon. The research team analyzed over 2,200 U.S. middle and high school students, and 28.1% admitted they had been subjected to a form of online dating abuse over the past year.

Perhaps surprisingly, the study also noted that boys (32.3%) appear to be experiencing this type of abuse more often than girls (23.6%). Across all variations, boys were more likely to have experienced a form of digital dating abuse. In fact, boys were also more likely to have experienced physical aggression from their partner. Besides these gender fluctuations, researchers didn’t find any significant demographic differences regarding rate of digital abuse among varying races, ages, or sexual orientations.

In all, 2,218 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 who had been in a romantic relationship took part in the study. Examples of digital abuse given by participants included their partner looking through their phone without permission, having their phone flat out stolen by their partner, being threatened via text, their partner posting something embarrassing or hurtful about them online, or their partner posting a private image online without their consent.

Besides online abuse, 35.9% of participants also said they’ve been a victim of offline dating abuse (being pushed, shoved, hit, threatened physically, called names, etc).

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“Specific to heterosexual relationships, girls may use more violence on their boyfriends to try to solve their relational problems, while boys may try to constrain their aggressive impulses when trying to negotiate discord with their girlfriends,” says Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D., lead author and a professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within FAU’s College for Design and Social Inquiry, and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, in a release. “It’s unfortunate to be thinking about dating abuse as we approach one of the most romantic days of the year, Valentine’s Day. However, it is clear that digital dating abuse affects a meaningful proportion of teenagers, and we need to model and educate youth on what constitutes a healthy, stable relationship and what betrays a dysfunctional, problematic one.”

Predictably, there was a major connection between being harassed online by a partner and also experiencing abuse in person. In all, 81% of students who had experienced digital dating abuse also reported being subjected to more traditional forms of romantic harassment.

Additionally, multiple risk factors were identified in regards to digital dating abuse. Teens who said they deal with depression were four times more likely to have been harassed online by a partner, and participants who reported having had sex were 2.5 times more likely to have experienced online abuse. Participants who had sent a “sext” were five times more likely to be targeted for online relationship abuse than teens who hadn’t sexted.

“As we observe ‘Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month,’ we are hopeful that our research will provide more information on the context, contributing factors, and consequences of these behaviors,” Hinduja concludes. “Gaining a deeper understanding of the emotional and psychological mind-set and the situational circumstances of current-day adolescents may significantly inform the policy and practice we need to develop to address this form and all forms of dating abuse.”

The study is published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence.

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