Guest post by: Emily Eisele, Prevention Education Specialist, HAVEN
When Is It Abuse?
Teens are often texting or tweeting, but how do you know if it is crossing the boundaries of a healthy relationship? It’s important to address with teens using media the dynamics of power and control. Do you feel afraid to leave your phone unattended? Do you feel like there will be social or relationship consequences if you don’t tell your partner where you are at all times? Every teen has texted “where r u?” to a friend or partner, but if there is a threat carried with it, that is abuse. Finding out if a teen feels fear in their relationship is essential to identifying abuse.
Making it clear that abuse does not have to be physical is also a hurdle to clear when discussing teen dating violence: many young people feel that digital harassment is a normal social experience. Labelling this behavior as abuse takes away the power of the abuser, and may be a first step for the target of abuse to find it unacceptable and get help. It is also essential to understand that dating violence uses a pattern of tactics to take power and control away from the victim, and that it escalates over time.
The importance of intervention is clear, considering the impact of teen dating violence on future partnerships. Disturbingly, experiences of controlling behavior, harassment and intimidation often affect how teens’ future relationships are formed. The CDC recently published disturbing statistics that 22% of women and 15% of men experiencing violence as adults first experienced relationship violence between the ages of 11 and 17.
While increased secrecy and independence during teen years is normal, withdrawal and other behaviors may be red flags. Signs a teen may be experiencing abuse, digital or otherwise, include:
- Extreme fear or emotion about constant access to phone or internet
- Depression or anxiety
- A dramatic change in clothing, weight or interests after beginning relationship
- Seeing friends and doing things they used to care about less and less
- Fear of partner’s reaction, or constant worry about what their partner thinks
- Fear of not texting or calling back right away
Responding to Teen Dating Violence
Being open to listening, not judging is essential to supporting any person experiencing intimate partner violence—and teens are no exception. Never blame the target of abuse by asking why she made X decision, but remind her that the abuse is not her fault, and is the choice of the abuser. Focus on behaviors—“It seems scary that she constantly needs to know where you are” instead of, “She’s controlling, I don’t like it.” Offering options instead of commands, ultimatums or restrictions can help bolster a teen’s self-esteem and help them make the right choice. Make resources available, like HAVEN’s Crisis and Support Line, and sites like www.loveisrespect.org where a teen can research and determine for themselves whether they are experiencing abuse. And talk openly about healthy relationship skills, because positive alternatives are a formative part of strong personal boundaries and partnerships. If you can, plan next steps together for digital and physical safety.
As a community, it is crucial that we work together to educate ourselves about the root causes of intimate partner violence, and come to an understanding as a community of how the dynamics of power and control operate. Talk with your school about peer groups for media safety, and media literacy for faculty and parents. Contact the Prevention Education team at HAVEN to request educational workshops and our leadership programs that discuss healthy relationships, consent, and teen dating violence.
Keep in mind that social media can be a powerful tool for social change among teens as well—support peer led groups at your local high school or middle school that engage in and support online media campaigns about consent, healthy masculinity, and ending violence against women. All people deserve to live free of fear. Let’s support teens with the tools to create social change.
HAVEN operates an anonymous Crisis and Support Line for anyone who is experiencing abuse, or who thinks a friend may be experiencing abuse and has questions. It is available and anonymous 24/7 at 877-922-1274. Crisis and Support Chat, and more information about our Prevention Education Program, are both available at www.haven-oakland.org.