Technology and Teen Dating Violence: Taking a Developmental Perspective

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February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Throughout the month, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) has been running a series of blog posts highlighting important issues affecting youth victimized through dating violence. The NACC has been responding to each of these posts with follow-up articles that extend the conversation.

Last week, the NCJFCJ published their fourth article in the series, “When Teen Dating Violence Goes Online.” This post, written by Charlene Baker, Ph.D., a professor of Community and Cultural Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, is a follow-up to that article.


Last week, Jennifer White, a Senior Attorney for Legal Programs for Futures Without Violence discussed “When Teen Dating Violence Goes Online.” This topic deserves special attention as the explosion of technology use among youth makes it no longer possible to ignore the impact that technology has on dating practices, and also on dating violence. The literature in this area has clearly documented the prevalence of this intersection, with 1 in 4 adolescents in one sample reporting being the victim of cyber dating violence (Zweig, Dank, Yahner, & Lachman, 2013). Two other studies with high school-aged adolescents also showed high prevalence rates of cyber dating violence, including:

  • 36% reporting that their partners checked up on them repeatedly on their cell phone;
  • 30% reporting that their partner called them names, put them down, or said mean things using some form of technology (Picard, 2007);
  • 48% reported that their partner had gone through their cell phone to check messages;
  • 39% reported that their partner had checked their personal page on a social media site to see who they had been communicating with (Baker & Helm, 2011).

What these data tell us is that while some things have not changed (the majority of youth want to be in a romantic relationship), the way they go about it and the risks they face have changed dramatically with the introduction of technology. To understand this process, and what youth are experiencing, it helps to take a developmental perspective. Adolescence is often filled with anxiety and stress as youth struggle with developmental milestones, including establishing their identity and intimacy with others. With this in mind, we can examine how technology plays both a positive and a negative role in the dating process. We also need to look more closely at how teen dating violence and technology intersect with other behaviors, such as negative peer actions and substance use, with the goal of initiating comprehensive legal and mental health responses.

Charlene Baker

Charlene Baker, Ph.D.

First, we know that adolescents focus a lot of their energy in trying to meet a romantic partner (Furman & Shaffer, 2003; Zimmer-Gembeck, Hughes, Kelly, & Connolly, 2012). But, instead of simply asking someone out, youth now use technology to screen potential partners. A few years ago, my colleagues and I conducted focus groups with high school teens, and we found that youth prefer to “get to know” their potential partner online first before going out on a date (Baker & Carreno, 2015). They may meet someone at a party or through mutual friends, but both boys and girls described how they would take the person’s number and then communicate through text messages or social media until they felt comfortable with another in-person meeting. This was especially true for boys, who were more anxious about being “shot down” in public when trying to ask a girl out.

Although technology can be helpful in screening a potential partner, we also see a hint of the negative role that technology plays. From the initial anxiety, which is present for both boys and girls as they play it safe by getting to know a partner from a distance, inevitably comes jealousy. Once in a relationship, youth in our sample described a never-ending saga of trying to make sure that their partner was not cheating on them. This fear was often increased by peers, including friends, who spread rumors about one partner cheating on the other. These rumors spread quickly over social media. Interestingly, when trying to address teen dating violence, we often emphasize the importance of friends, and making sure that these types of informal support systems are in place to help victims; however, our research suggests that peers add fuel to the fire rather than serve as a support to victims or a deterrent to perpetrators (Baker, in press). So, why do peers do it? For one, it’s about gaining social status – which is an important part of adolescence. Not to mention, the drama caused by such actions. Teens describe the drama as the primary reason that peers spread rumors.

So, with this mix of jealousy and fear of losing their partner, youth in our sample described how they turned to monitoring and controlling their partner. And, technology made it so much easier. They logged into each other’s accounts (having already obtained passwords during the early stages of the relationship) and searched for “offending” posts from others; they also looked at their partner’s phone to see all of the text messages sent and received. But, alarmingly, both boys and girls did not see an issue with monitoring their partner, or their partner monitoring them; it was just part of being in a relationship. Unless it became extreme, youth did not identify monitoring, and even moderate controlling behaviors, as a problem. In their view, it was irritating but definitely not abusive (Baker & Helm, 2010).

This lack of awareness by teens as to what constitutes dating violence brings us to the second important issue, i.e., the need to understand how dating violence and technology intersect with other behaviors. In last week’s NCJFCJ’s article some negative impacts of teen dating violence and technology were discussed, including suicide behaviors. Given the developmental struggles youth face during adolescence, these impacts should not surprise us. When someone’s relationship plays out in real time to a large audience, the time for recovery (not to mention self-preservation) is nonexistent. What should be private is no longer private; rather, it is broadcast to the masses for public consumption and ridicule. There are not many of us who could handle that kind of scrutiny. For youth, who are developmentally more fragile than adults, the impacts of this scrutiny and betrayal are much more severe.

To cope, youth in our sample described drinking and using drugs until they were so “messed up that it wasn’t even OK.” Then, while under the influence, they did other things. They went on social media sites and posted inappropriate material and made disparaging comments about their partner. But, that isn’t all. Girls described cutting themselves to ease their pain; boys described getting into fights with peers while they were drunk or high. These behaviors seemed to set off a chain reaction, sometimes culminating with entry into the juvenile justice system (Baker, Helm, Bifulco, & Chun-Do, 2015; Baker, 2016). Therefore, it is clear that teen dating violence and technology are linked with both legal and mental health consequences for youth.

The question is: what can be done? In addition to the list of solutions proposed by Susan White in last week’s NCJFCJ article, I would like to make a few other suggestions:

  • We need to help teens reframe their thinking about technology, and what is acceptable behavior in a relationship. This is especially important as teens may not view some types of behaviors as abusive, only irritating. Right now teens feel like they should have 24-hour access to each other. As evidence, one study found that 24% of teens in a relationship reported communicating via text with their partners between midnight and 5AM (Picard, 2007). With technology, the reach of a perpetrator is much greater than it used to be. Online resources are a big step (e.g., ThatsNotCool.com; LoveIsRespect.org); but more needs to be done. We need interventions that encourage teens to engage in active problem solving so they can learn how to set boundaries for themselves, and also understand that their partner has a right to set boundaries too.
  • In addition to visiting schools to present information on dating violence and technology to teens and parents as was suggested in last week’s NCJFCJ article, I would also say that school administrators need to be educated on this intersection. Nationally, many school systems are not prepared to deal with teen dating violence on their campuses. Therefore, communication between the courts and schools is essential to protect victims, many of whom are forced into continual contact with the perpetrator on school grounds. Judges and attorneys can make a meaningful contribution by helping school systems establish appropriate policies, including procedures to help victims obtain a temporary protective order, if necessary.
  • We also need bystander interventions in our schools and communities. These interventions involve teaching bystanders how to intervene in situations where dating violence is about to occur (Banyard, Plante, & Moynihan, 2004). By raising awareness of how peers use technology to encourage discord and violence in dating relationships, and by teaching skills that emphasize positive ways to intervene, we may begin to see more responsible use of technology among peers and dating partners. There is also a level of accountability too; if peers engage in bullying behaviors that incite dating violence, then they need to be held accountable.
  • Finally, attorneys, judges, and court staff would benefit from trainings on the intersection of dating violence (including cyber dating violence), and other types of behaviors (e.g., alcohol and drug use, self-harm, truancy, other violent acts). We have a greater understanding of these intersections based on research and practice. It is no longer enough to simply ask teens to explain and take responsibility for their actions (though this can be a start) since during this developmental stage, they may not fully understand why they did what they did. Therefore, an important role for the juvenile justice system is to help connect these dots so that appropriate accountability (and support) can be provided to youth.

References:

Baker, C. K. (in press). What role do peers play in adolescent dating?: Insights from adolescents with a history of dating violence. Violence Against Women.

Baker, C. K. (2016). Dating violence and substance use: Exploring the context of adolescent relationships. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(5), 900-919.

Baker, C. K. & Carreno, P. (2016). Understanding the role of technology in dating and dating violence. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 25(1), 308-320.

Baker, C.K., & Helm. S. (2010). Pacific youth and shifting thresholds: Understanding teen dating violence in Hawai‘i. Journal of School Violence, 9, 154-173.

Baker, C. K., & Helm, S. (2011). The prevalence of intimate partner violence victimization and perpetration among youth in Hawai‘i. Hawai‘i Medical Journal, 70, 92-96.

Baker, C. K., Helm, S., Bifulco, K., & Chung-Do, J. (2015). Self-harm and teen dating violence among youth in Hawai‘i. Qualitative Health Research, 25(5), 652-667.

Banyard, V. L., Plante, E. G., & Moynihan, M. M. (2004). Bystander education: Bringing a broader community perspective to sexual violence prevention. Journal of Community Psychology, 32, 61–79.

Furman, W., & Shaffer, L. (2003). The role of romantic relationships in adolescence. In P. Florsheim (Ed.), Adolescent romantic relations and sexual behavior: Theory, research and practical implications (pp. 3-22). Mahwah, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Picard, P. (2007). Tech abuse in teen relationships. Chicago, IL: Teen Research Unlimited. Retrieved from http://www.loveisrespect.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/liz-claiborne-2007-tech-relationship-abuse.pdf

Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., Hughes, N., Kelly, M., & Connolly, J. (2012). Intimacy, identity, and status: Measuring dating goals in late adolescence and emerging adulthood. Motivation and Emotion, 36(3), 311-322.

Zweig, J. M., Dank, M., Yahner, J., & Lachman, P. (2013). The rate of cyber dating abuse among teens and how it relates to other forms of teen dating violence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 42, 1063-1077.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

Charlene Baker, Ph.D.

Charlene Baker, Ph.D. is a professor of Community and Cultural Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her research interests include working in collaboration with communities to develop and evaluate culturally appropriate prevention and intervention programs aimed at reducing the prevalence and impact of intimate partner violence. In particular, her work explores the intersections of intimate partner violence and other social issues such as homelessness and substance use. She emphasizes the need for comprehensive policy and programmatic solutions to address these intersecting social issues. Her recent articles are related to dating violence and its link with substance use, self-harm, and technology use among high school students. She is also currently examining the intersection of dating violence and technology use among college undergraduates.

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