On October 26th, CNN.com ran an article which told the story of Allyson Pereira, a 21-year-old woman who is still living with the consequences of a single text she sent more than five years ago.
After weathering a blitzkrieg of cruel MySpace comments, instant messages, and e-mails from her high school boyfriend, Pereira (then 16) found herself suddenly and unceremoniously dumped. Then, a month later, he changed his mind with one proviso–that she send him a nude picture of herself, as proof of her affection and commitment. Confused and vulnerable, Pereira acquiesced, never imagining that a topless photo she sent would be forwarded to other students at her high school–and then, to the rest of the world. “I was so ashamed, embarrassed and mad,” she said, in an interview with CNN.
As a result of her experiences, Pereira recently appeared on a MTV documentary about digital dating abuse called “A Thin Line,” where she and others not only spoke out against digital abuse, but also warned teens to consider the unforeseen consequences of sexting. Indeed, the evidence suggests that this message is coming none-too-soon: a new study from the Cyberbullying Research Center shows that one in ten teens reported receiving threatening cell phone messages from a romantic partner, and another 10% say their romantic partner had stopped them from using a computer or cell phone.
This is significant because this study illustrates how cell phones can be used in a pattern of abuse, particularly to reinforce the familiar themes of power and control. Sameer Hinduja, co-founder of the Cyberbullying Research Center and associate professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University, explains that while such behaviors may initially seem innocuous, they can rapidly escalate to the level of relationship abuse. For example, he explains that it may initially start by “checking her texts and pictures to make sure she’s not texting with any other boys,” often followed by claims that “he wants to make sure the pictures are appropriate.” But, Hinduja says, ultimately “it’s the coercion and control that borders on real-world violence.”
The trend is particularly troubling for mental health providers who primarily serve adolescents and young adults. Jill Murray, a psychotherapist in California who has worked with victims of teen dating abuse, says almost all her new cases in the past three years involve mobile technology and social networking. In some instances, she says, the victims receive as many as 40 texts a day with negative messages from their partner, and are often penalized socially and emotionally for failing to reply. “It’s the phenomenon of no place to run and no place to hide,” Jennings says. “Now, you can be stalked electronically. You can’t even see your predator coming.”As a result, young women are effectively being taught to tolerate such behavior, and become fearful of the consequences of violating it. The problem, Jennings says, comes from the very nature of mobile communications and social networking, which allow fast, unlimited access to large swaths of the population, with little to no social or financial repercussions.
Unlike traditional media, social networking and mobile devices allow abusers access to their victims 24/7, even in traditionally private environments or safe times, like the home, after school and on weekends. And because mass media outlets like Facebook and Myspace can connect thousands within seconds, they give the abusive partner more leverage than ever before, either by posting or threatening to post a damaging message online that is seen by hundreds or even thousands of the victim’s friends and family, and even total strangers. In addition, since digital abuse does not leave any physical marks on victims, parents and school authorities may be completely unaware and powerless to end the abuse, especially if kids are also afraid to report the abuse for fear of social stigma, parental disbelief or worse yet, the loss of cell phone and laptop privileges.
Two agencies working nationally to combat this issue is the The Family Violence Prevention Fund, which is working with the Department of Justice to release a series of public service announcements in their “That’s Not Cool” campaign and Liz Claiborne, Inc. a women’s clothing company which maintains a hot line and website “Love is Respect” teens can go to for support and information.
Here in Orange County, FVPC community education volunteers travel to local middle and high schools to educate students about the importance of identifying and reporting abusive relationships (including cyber-bullying), as well as tools and resources available to them. Students learn what to look for in their own relationships, and the warning signs that often precipitate an escalation of dating abuse.
If you would like one of our community educators to come and speak to a group of your students, give our office a call at 929 3872.