On March 14 of this year, a young girl’s prank had unimaginable consequences. Tysen Benz, 11, hanged himself after reading messages on Snapchat saying his 13-year-old girlfriend had died. Except, she hadn’t. It was all made up by the young girl; she was sending the messages from a friend’s account. After reading the news of his girlfriend’s “death,” Benz posted on social media he was going to kill himself. None of the people who read his post, none of the people who knew his girlfriend was pranking him, tried to stop him. Benz died in the hospital on April 4.
On June 16, Michelle Carter was found guilty of manslaughter in a highly publicized case in which prosecutors argued she was responsible for her boyfriend’s death after she instructed him to follow through on his plan to commit suicide. At the time of Conrad Roy III’s death in 2014, he was 18 and Carter was 17.
“You can’t think about it. You just have to do it. You said you were gonna do it. Like I don’t get why you aren’t,” Carter allegedly told Roy via text.
Roy killed himself in his truck with carbon monoxide.
These shocking incidents of teens using technology to harass and terrify their dating partners are extreme but point to an important message: Dating abuse has gone online. According to a study from the Urban Institute Project, 25 percent of dating teens have been victimized by their partners through technology. Of those, more than half of the victims said they were also physically abused.
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Other key findings from the report:
- Just 9 percent of teens of digital abuse sought help, and it was rarely from their parents or teachers.
- A third of those who experienced digital abuse also experienced sexual coercion from their partner.
- Much higher incidences of digital abuse from a dating partner were reported among LGBTQ youth compared to heterosexual teens.
Adults Are Doing It, Too
It’s not surprising to Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer at The National Domestic Violence Hotline, to hear that teen abusers are increasingly using technology to harass their partners, considering the same is true among adult abusers.
“It’s about one person trying to have power and control over their partner,” Crawford says. “So, yes, some of the behaviors we see in adult relationships, we see in youngsters as well.”
When it comes to technology, controlling behaviors include:
- Using social media to monitor a partner’s whereabouts or track friendships
- Constant texting
- Coercing a partner into sending explicit selfies
- Coercing a partner for sex
- Sending degrading or threatening messages
- Demanding passwords to email and social media accounts
- Tampering with a partner’s social media account without their permission
Start Talking About This Early
Crawford says that stopping the cycle means parents and educators need to take the lead. Start by talking to kids about healthy relationships at a young age—and she means young.
“I believe we should start talking about healthy relationships in preschool with 3- and 4-year-olds,” she says. “There are opportunities very early on to teach things like ‘We don’t put our hands on other people’ and ‘If someone says stop, we stop.’”
The conversations should continue and should start including information on dating relationships around 10 or 11. “Before a young person starts dating, start talking to them about healthy dating relationships and healthy conflict resolution,” Crawford says.
What to Do
If you suspect your teen is being abused by a romantic partner, resist the urge to swoop in and save the day.
“If you say, ‘I forbid you to see this person,’ how well do you think that’s going to go?” she says. “Also, as parents, we have to think about what dating violence goes back to. It’s about power and control. If your teen is in an abusive relationship, we shouldn’t also be stripping power and control away from them. We should be working to shift power back to them.”
Here are some things you can do, according to loveisrespect.org:
Listen. Be available for your teen to talk to and offer support. Tell him or her no one deserves to be abused and that the abuse is of no fault of their own.
Be non-judgmental. Never accuse your teen of acting in a way that instigates abuse. Also, don’t make your teen feel bad for continuing to love the person abusing them.
Believe your teen. Survivors of dating violence are often reluctant to tell someone what’s going on for fear of not being believed. Don’t dismiss abuse as teen drama or angst.
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Suggest peer counseling. Sometimes teens feel more comfortable talking to other teens. Loveisrespect.org has teen advocates that can listen and offer advice. Reach them at 866-331-9474, online or by texting “loveis” to 22522.
Decide on next steps together. Rather than mandating your teen stop seeing an abusive partner, discuss how he or she plans to move forward. Be available to assist with safety planning but let your teen take the lead on when and how to end the relationship.
If you need more advice on how to help a youngster who’s being abused or if you want help starting the conversation about healthy relationships, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline or visit loveisrespect.org.
Learn more about how to talk to your son or daughter about healthy relationships and dating violence in “Healthy, Unhealthy or Abusive?”
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