"Textual Harassment": When Technology Enables AbuseS

Many texting trends (cf. "chexting") are just silly, but experts say "textual harassment" is dangerous — a new and disturbing feature of abusive relationships.

The Washington Post's Donna St. George writes that such harassment — marked by excessive, repeated, and threatening text messages — has become a serious problem. Dating violence expert Jill Murray says, "it's part and parcel of every abusive dating relationship now." And Claire Kaplan, director of sexual and domestic violence services at the University of Virginia, says harassment is "just easier now." Bearing this out are a number of disturbing stories of girls and women threatened or controlled via text, including one teen whose ex-boyfriend texted her "U need to see me" and other messages before coming to her home and fatally stabbing her, and another whose parents found frightening texts from a boyfriend only after he killed her. Text messages are more than just another tool in an abuser's arsenal — they make repeatedly contacting a victim significantly easier because of a combination of two factors.

— They're private. Gary Cuccia, father of the stabbed girl, says, "When I was growing up, we had one phone in the whole house, and if you were fighting with your girlfriend, everybody knew about it." But as psych professor Patricia Greenfield pointed out in the Times earlier this month, concealing conversations from family is, for kids, a main perk of cell phones: "Kids want the phone so that they can have private communication with their peers." Text messages, which kids can send and receive in silence, are a big part of this privacy — and abusive or disturbing ones are easy to hide from the prying eyes of parents and other loved ones.

— They can be hard to block. Instant messages are silent, too, but users can block IMs with the click of a button. To block texts from a number, you sometimes have to call your cell phone provider. Verizon's website allows users to block texts or calls from a specific number, but there's a limit of 5 blocked numbers — which harassers could get around by paying friends to text, as one boy actually did.

The lesson of this last incident is that a committed harasser can use technology in ways ordinary people would never dream of — and while controls on the technology itself may partly fix the problem, we also need to stop abusers and help teens and adults get out of abusive relationships. St. George mentions several programs geared toward raising awareness of digital dating abuse — it's also important that those who abuse in such a way are prosecuted, and their victims protected from their continuing efforts. This is one area where text messages may actually help victims — as Cindy Southworth, founder of the Safety Net Project, points out, they provide "irrefutable evidence of the abuse" that prosecutors can use to help make it stop.

Image via IKO/Shutterstock.com.

Text Messages Become A Growing Weapon In Dating Violence [Washington Post]

Related: When To Buy Your Child A Cellphone