How to Talk With Students About Electronic Dating Violence

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Teens, tweens and even younger kids are on smartphones, tablets and computers a lot. Of course, tech can be a force for good. Parents, educators and youth themselves report many benefits from the presence of technology in young people’s lives—connecting with family and friends, sharing experiences with distant peers, learning, being entertained and more.

But there are also a number of challenges. These include cyberbullying and online harassment. Beyond these lies another troublesome area with less data and little recognition by young people themselves: electronic dating violence (EDV).

What It Is

We define electronic dating violence as the use of technology (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, social media, messaging apps, websites) to embarrass, harass or threaten a romantic partner.

This might include such things as sending harassing texts (negative, critical, demeaning), or sending high numbers of texts to “check up” on a partner. It could include posting on social media sites (photos, rumors, negative comments). The creation of a specific website or page intended to intimidate, embarrass or control a partner, or posting of compromising or intimate photos are other examples.

EDV can also involve stalking behaviors, such as using apps to monitor someone’s location or mining personal information that is later used in threatening ways.

Like cyberbullying, EDV is a 24/7 phenomenon. It can happen when a victim is with friends, family or alone. The abusive partner may be present or absent. The abuse is often hidden from adult observers. It can be difficult for a victim to stop the interactions.

Like teen dating violence, EDV may include psychological and emotional abuse as well as controlling behaviors. It may involve threats of violence. It can have both short- and long-term negative effects on the victim. This might include depression, anxiety and a greater likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors (e.g. tobacco, alcohol or drug use).

Like all kinds of relationship violence, there are some instances where the aggression is mutual—both partners can participate in negative behaviors.

Why Does Electronic Dating Violence Matter?

EDV is an emerging area of concern in part because technology today allows for greater secrecy in the encounters. This allows the abuse to remain even more hidden than conventional physical or verbal abuse.

Underreporting of EDV appears to be common. One study suggests the majority of victims—almost 7 in 10—don’t perceive EDV as serious enough to report. Many youth fear having their access to technology revoked if they tell a parent or other adult about the abuse. They worry about having time with their partner limited.

This suggests that young people are willing to endure harassment and victimization, sometimes of a very serious nature, to avoid being disconnected from their peers and social lives.

In a report by Janine Zweig and others in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, more than one in four youth in a current or recent relationship reported experiencing some sort of electronic dating violence within the past year. These youth were seven times more likely to have also experienced sexual coercion. One in 10 youth admitted being perpetrators of EDV, and these individuals were 17 times more likely to have sexually coerced a partner.

Our Own Research

In a recent pilot study of a high school “Healthy Relationships” intervention, nonprofit Education Training and Research’s (ETR) research group collected data from students about EDV victimization. Although our sample was small—94 students—our data further affirm that, indeed, young people are experiencing EDV victimization.

Males reported more EDV victimization from a romantic partner than females, which is consistent with other published studies. Furthermore, our data suggest that almost 70% of both males and females in our study are ending relationships electronically. When they’re breaking up, they’re avoiding communicating directly in person.

Talking With Youth About EDV

It’s time to elevate EDV to a priority issue. We must give young people better education about what EDV is, how they can prevent it in their own relationships and where to get help if they need it. This means helping young people learn skills for communicating in non-abusive ways both in person and through tech. It also means offering education that helps youth develop healthy strategies to manage their emotions.

Use the following four steps to bring communication about EDV into classrooms and other educational settings.

1. Integrate the topic into existing materials addressing dating violence. For example, in the “Violence & Injury Prevention” unit of ETR’s high school HealthSmart program, students explore a range of dating scenarios. They identify whether the scenarios are Green, Yellow or Red Light situations.

Here’s one:

Brian gets upset when Jana wants to spend time with her friends and family. He wants them to spend all of their time together.

This is identified as a Yellow Light scenario—one that could become a Red Light if Brian becomes abusive with Jana to keep her from friends or family. In the discussion, a teacher might ask, “What do you think Jana should do if Brian starts texting her constantly while she’s at a family event?” It would be interesting to see what students consider to be “too much” texting and hear their suggested solutions.

Similarly, activities that discuss one partner putting sexual pressure on another can also address pressure to send sexually explicit texts or images.

2. Use EDV examples in teachable moments. TV shows, news reports, movies, incidents at school and stories about friends can all bring up issues related to electronic dating violence. These are ideal moments to explore students’ opinions and experiences and to provide guidance about EDV.

3. Ask about peers and friends rather than putting individual students on the spot. As with other sensitive issues, educators may learn more about students’ experiences, and be able to offer more effective guidance, by finding indirect routes into the conversation (“Have you heard of peers who text their boyfriends and girlfriends all night long? Why do some people think this is a problem?”)

4. Adapt interactive activities that students have already enjoyed. Have students create skits, make videos, deliver public service announcements, act as advice columnists or build anonymous surveys using Survey Monkey or similar programs. Any of these activities could be adapted to address technology communications and EDV.

Next Steps: Find Out More

Any time we look at youth and technology, we must work continuously to stay current in our understanding. For example, the study about young people not thinking EDV was serious enough to report to family or friends was completed almost 10 years ago.

We also need research studies that help us understand whether EDV is one element along the continuum of intimate partner violence, or a distinct form of dating abuse with its own unique antecedents and determinants. To what extent might EDV be associated with other forms of partner abuse? Are victimization and perpetration associated with different types of relationships (for example, steady versus casual)?

Empowering Youth

Finally, and most importantly, we must empower youth to take a stand against EDV. It is young people themselves who can best promote healthy norms around what is acceptable and unacceptable in technology communication with peers.

Pamela M. Anderson, PhD, is an applied developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent development and a senior research associate at ETR. Her research focuses on adolescent romantic relationship development and sexual risk outcomes.

Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is a licensed marriage and family therapist who has specialized in adolescents and families. She is a senior editor at ETR and manager of the ETR blog.

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