By Dr. Elizabeth Englander, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center
Rebecca’s ex-partner sent a photo to her cell phone. A rope tied into a noose. Beneath the photo there was a text message that read, "Check out what I learned how to tie... Looks good hey!"[i]
No one disputes the seriousness of teen dating violence but how teens abuse each other has become a very important part of any teen dating violence case. The impact of digital communications in abusive situations can be difficult for court officials to assess. But enough research exists for us to draw some conclusions about when to take digital forms of dating violence seriously.
First, digital dating violence between teens should never be taken lightly. Threats can be just as traumatic as physical violence, and digital behaviors can be used to threaten or coerce victims when physical contact is forbidden. Just as flowers from an offender can appear to be positive while actually being threatening, a seemingly benign text message can be extremely threatening. Digital dating violence can also escalate into physical threats and violence easily, by increasing the offender’s confidence and the victim’s vulnerability. In some cases, victims of dating violence are being threatened by the existence of compromising materials (e.g., nude photos). It’s important to know that it is not rare for sexual or nude materials to be made under pressure or coercion, especially in abusive relationships.
Second, offenders may view digital technology as a way to circumvent court orders. Offenders may realize that while a phone call can be ignored, a digital message can often get through to the victim. The ephemeral quality of texting and social media may make it difficult for victims to show possible breaches of a protection order. Real or threatened public exposure of information or threats can be used by offenders to increase their leverage over victims, inhibit help-seeking and further isolate the victim. Offenders also may have encountered judges who didn’t take digital contact seriously. Even if they did hear from judicial officers who understand the import of these new tactics, some offenders don’t realize that “anonymous” messages are traceable. Other offenders may not even realize that digital activities can be a crime, or that encouraging others to harass or threaten the victim online can be also be a crime.
Finally, it can be tempting to see victims as responsible for their own problems with technology. Victims may continue to use technology despite online attacks or threats, fearing the consequences if they block an offender’s messages or phone number. Further, mobile devices and social media are used today as primary forms of communication. They are also safety devices that can quickly summon help for victims who are threatened. If a victim is asked by the court to limit her mobile device use, the court is also curtailing her ability to connect with her support network, seek out help and resources, or even summon police if in danger. Many national domestic violence organizations allow victims to chat or text with advocates via cell phones. This medium of communication is very important for teen victims, who may feel more comfortable using social media to ask for help. Victims can also be contacted through work, where they must often use digital technology; through communication channels set up for friends and family; or through an abuser’s allies. It may be possible to minimize some contact, but staying entirely away from technology is neither realistic nor feasible.
In the case of dating violence, the power to misuse digital technology lies with the offender, who will use it to promote his or her goals of fear and dominance. It is the role of the court to recognize and curtail the abuse of those powers when dealing with a case involving teen dating violence.
[i] Stefani Langenegger, Regina Police Fail To Take Domestic Violence Threat Seriously, Dec. 11, 2016, available at, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan/rebecca-stepan-police-regina-1.3889528, Despite the no-contact order in place, police thought that Rebecca was imagining an implied threat.