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Source: Farknot Architect/Shutterstock

Digital connectivity can be a powerful and positive tool for 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, domestic abusers use digital technology to victimize partners, we teamed up with the Data & Society research institute to talk to more than 3,000 Americans age 16 and older about their experiences. Here’s what we learned:

What does digital domestic abuse look like?

Digital domestic abuse experiences range from the relatively benign — albeit irritating — to the possibly damaging, and includes: revenge porn, sexually harassing a partner online, controlling a partner’s social media accounts (e.g., demanding social media account passwords or 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 in which both people agree to what is going do not represent digital domestic abuse. For example, sexting is not always a problem behavior. About 7 percent of teens sext, and it can be a part of healthy sexual exploration [1] and even a way to avoid having sex [2] — you can’t get an STD from a photo. If one person is forcing or coercing the other to sext or uses the sext in a way that the other person doesn’t agree to, however, that’s digital abuse. 

How prevalent is digital domestic abuse?

Digital abuse in romantic relationships is not uncommon: 1 out of every 8 people who had been in a romantic relationship had experienced at least one of the forms of digital domestic abuse we asked about. The most common 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 the only victims. We also found that the burden of digital domestic abuse weighs more heavily on certain groups. Of particular note, people under 30 were three times as likely as people over 30 to have experienced digital harassment perpetrated by a partner [3]. And 38 percent 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 can last long after the experience ends. We found a connection between a history of digital domestic abuse and negative attitudes toward online spaces: More than a third of people who had ever been digitally harassed by a partner also felt that people were “mostly unkind” to one another online. Internet users who had been targeted by a partner were more annoyed, angry, worried, or scared by subsequent online experiences than those who had been 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 this is purely speculative, it is perhaps because 74 percent 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 are uncomfortable reaching out for help despite their distress. And many people may simply not be aware of the available support resources. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing digital abuse, there are resources available. The National Domestic Abuse Hotline and LoveisRespect offer talk, text, and online chat functions. If you do not feel safe reaching out to them using one of your own devices, visit a local library or ask a friend to access these resources for you

By arming ourselves with knowledge about what digital domestic abuse is and how widespread it has become, 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.

• See the full report here.
• Learn more about our research at Center for Innovative Public Health Research.
• Find us on Twitter and Facebook.

Thank you to Emily Goldstein and Hannah Madison for your 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...

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