Youth use cell phones for ‘dating abuse’

by Larry Magid

Cell phones and the Internet are great ways for romantic partners to stay in touch, but based on a recent survey of 14 to 24 year olds, they’re also being used to spy and harass significant others.  My report on the Associated Press and MTV study about youth digital abuse focused mostly on sexting and how youth respond to cyberbullying. But there was also some interesting data on how technology is being used for “dating abuse.”

The study (PDF) found that 22 percent of youth involved in a romantic relationship say they feel like their significant other uses a cell phone or goes online to check up on them too often. The study also found that “more than 1 in 4 say their boyfriend or girlfriend has checked the text messages on their phone without permission,” and more than 10 percent of the young people said that a boyfriend or girlfriend has demanded that they give them their password.

Whether by coercion or not, 26 percent said they had shared an online password with someone. Females (31 percent) are more likely to share passwords than males (22 percent). And though there isn’t necessarily a causal relationship, 68 percent of those who have shared passwords report having been a target of digital abuse compared with 44 percent of those who hadn’t.

Not surprisingly, a significant minority of the youth (12 percent) said that a boyfriend or girlfriend call them names, put them down, or say really mean things to them on the Internet or cell phone.

And about 1 in 10 said that a significant other demanded that they unfriend a former boyfriend or girlfriend on social networks.

The survey, conducted for The Associated Press and MTV by Knowledge Networks interviewed 1,247 people between the ages 14 and 24 in what was described as a nationally representative survey.

This data comes just as there is increased attention on teen dating abuse. CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reported last week that 29 percent of America’s teens “say that they were emotionally, sexually or physical abused by their boyfriends and sometimes even girlfriends last year.” Though technology doesn’t cause nor necessarily play a role in teen dating violence, it clearly can amplify the problem, especially if a partner in the relationship is using a cell phone or computer to harass, stalk or spy on their partner as the AP/MTV survey has shown. Technology can also be used by partners to embarrass their significant others by making it possible for partner to details or their relationship online. One of the biggest downsides to “sexting” is the possibility of a partner sharing those images with others.

Marriage and family therapist Marty Klein is less concerned about kids sharing intimate photos with their partners than he about how some are misusing those images. “Take the sex out of sexting and what you have is a betrayal of trust,” Klein said. The Internet, he added, “more clearly and sometimes more dramatically focuses our attention on problems that people have struggled with forever.” In other words, the Internet and mobile technology don’t cause these problems (that exist in offline relationships) but they can amplify them.

Couric also reported that calls and online chat to the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline went up nearly 600 percent from March 2007 to March 2009. The Helpline’s Web site has advice for teens including a section on helping to determine if you’re being abused.

In conjunction with the release of the digital abuse survey, MTV launched A Thin Line, a Web site that provides resources to help youth deal with sexting, constant messaging, spying, digital disrespect, and cruelty.

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