SALT LAKE CITY — Her girlfriends don't know the exact origin of Maria's current tears, but they're pretty sure they have the big picture: Maria's boyfriend has texted something mean about how she's dressed or who her friends are.
It's an ongoing cycle in the teenage relationship. Once, he sent her home to change because he didn't like the color of her blouse. When she refused, he dumped his soda on her so she had to change. Sometimes, he posts snide comments about her on Facebook. Last week, Maria sent her friend Joan a text: "I can't go with you to the mall. He says we spend too much time together."
They are 15 years old.
The messages make Joan fume. Although young, she knows that this boy's behavior is bad news. Still, when she tells her lifelong pal she can do better, Maria wails, "But I love him."
Maria does not recognize that this boy has placed her among the 26 percent of teenagers who have been digitally abused — harassed through social media sites and technology — and that, as a new study says often happens, the abuse occurs in the physical realm she inhabits, too.
A survey just released by the Urban Institute of 5,647 teens found that more than 1 in 4 teens experiences the digital version of dating violence, that they are twice as likely to experience physical abuse and 2.5 times as likely to be psychologically abused as their friends who aren't digitally abused. They are five times more likely to be sexually coerced.
Romance, for a quarter of teens, is dangerous.
Young and mean
Lots of people can play a role in addressing abuse between teens who are in a relationship, including parents, schools and peers, the researchers say. But first, it's important to know the dimensions of the issue and how multifaceted it can be.
"That 1 in 4 teens experience real abuse is an astonishingly high number," said Janine Zweig, a senior fellow from the Urban Institute and one of the report's authors. "And the other critically important piece is if someone is facing this kind of abuse and harassment, it's a big red flag that they are experiencing other kinds of abuse, too."
Zweig said digital abuse is degrading, embarrassing, coercive and controlling. And because it's done digitally, it doesn't require presence, so it can be a constant barrage. "Back in the day, you could take the phone off the hook and there was nothing they could do to get to you. Unfortunately, if a partner today wants to be unrelenting, he can be."
About 77 percent of kids ages 12-17 have a cellphone and 96 percent are online. There are lots of ways to stalk, control, harass and abuse partners. A 2006 study included stories of a young male who hacked his girlfriend's social media account to read the posts, then had his partner explain each one to him. When they broke up, he created a hate website about her.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's violence prevention efforts note that people who harm their dating partners are more depressed and aggressive than their peers. Among other risk factors it cites for harming a dating partner: trauma symptoms, alcohol use, problem behaviors in other areas, exposure to harsh parenting or inconsistent discipline and lack of parental supervision and warmth.
Signs of digital abuse include using one's social networking sites accounts without permission, creating online pages "about" the person, posting embarrassing photos or comments or writing nasty things about the person, using personal information to harass, sending unwanted sexual messages and photos, pressuring or threatening to get sexual photos and taking videos and sharing them without permission.
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