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Domestic Violence in the Social Digital Age

Published in Women's Services, Men's Health, For the Health of It Author: Rena Sespene-Hinz, MSW, LISW, ACMSW, St. Cloud Hospital NICU/Pediatric/FBC Social Worker – Inpatient Care Management

The use of technology, including phones, tablets, computers and social networking websites, has now become a common means for abusers to stay connected to their partner in intimate partner violence.

Although the way in which intimate partner abuse or harassment occurs through technology can look different, the goal and motive is still the same — it’s about power and control. Technology allows an abuser to assert that power and control by keeping tabs on their partner, by knowing who the survivor talks to and what she/he does. This is a key part of the control. Because so many people live their lives on the internet, it provides information for the abuser and a ready means to isolate, punish, threaten or share sexualized content — all to humiliate the victim.

Whether you call it cyber-bulling, internet harassment or stalking, digital abuse is any type of bullying or harassing behavior that occurs online, through social networking, text messaging or other technologies. These acts include anything from sending or posting mean or threatening messages about another person to disclosing private information without permission. The tactics are wide ranging.


According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of adult internet users have been affected by cyberstalking, persistent harassing emails or other unwanted online contact. Women are targeted with sexually explicit messages and threats 27 times more than men. And for women of color and LGBT women, the rate is even higher.

A survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV showed that 76 percent of 14- to 24-year-olds say that digital abuse is a serious problem for people their age. More than half of those surveyed say they have experienced being electronically harassed in some form through social and digital media. That is a 50 percent increase from the 2009 survey. Forty percent report incidences of digital dating abuse and 11 percent have shared naked pictures of themselves.

How do you know if you are experiencing digital abuse?

Digital abuse or the use of technologies such as texting and social networking to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a partner is considered emotional and/or verbal abuse. Although it is perpetuated online, it has a strong impact on a victim’s real life. According to advocates at loveisrespect, your partner may be digitally abusing you if he/she:

  • Tells you who you can or can’t be friends with on Facebook and other sites
  • Sends negative, insulting or even threatening emails, Facebook messages, tweets, DMs or other messages online
  • Uses sites like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and others to keep constant tabs on you
  • Puts you down in their status updates
  • Sends unwanted, explicit pictures and demands you send some in return
  • Pressures you to send explicit video
  • Steals or insists to be given your passwords
  • Constantly texts you and makes you feel like you can’t be separated from your phone for fear that you will be punished
  • Looks through your phone frequently and checks up on your pictures, texts and outgoing calls
  • Tags you unkindly in pictures on Instagram, Tumblr, etc.

Digital abuse, like other forms of abuse, is an attempt to control a partner’s actions. As part of maintaining a healthy relationship, we recommend that partners create a digital contract that outlines what is and is not acceptable behavior online. Additionally, it’s important to know and exercise your “digital rights:”

  • You have the right to turn off your phone and spend time with friends and family without your partner getting angry.
  • You have the right to say no to sexting or sending pictures or information digitally to your partner that you are not comfortable with.
  • You have the right to keep your logins and passwords private
  • You have the right to control your own privacy settings on social networking sites.
  • You have the right to feel safe and respected in your relationship, online or off.

Exercising these rights and feeling safe are important aspects of every healthy relationship.