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.
Social media sites, cellphones and other technologies provide "a new tool in the toolbox to do that for those who are inclined to harass and abuse," Zweig said.
The survey found that nearly all of those digitally abused experienced other harm, too — 84 percent suffered psychological abuse, 52 percent physical abuse and 32 percent sexual coercion. That last number is five-fold that of teens who are in non-abusive relationships.
Girls were more likely to be abused than boys. Girls were also more likely to be nonsexual if they abused.
Parents are on the front lines of stopping — or, better yet — preventing abuse between teens who are dating. However, much of the work must be done before abuse starts. It begins with mentoring and messages from a young age, says Brian Pinero, director of services for Love Is Respect, which partners with another Austin, Texas-based, group called Breakthecycle.org to combat abuse between teens.
Kids need role models, he said, and that means "more than just 'I love your father.' It's talking about important things, such as, 'The one thing I love best about my relationship with your father is that we're allowed to be individuals.' Fathers can talk with sons: 'One of the things I love best about your mother is that she does have friends outside of me and we have personalities that are different and I'm comfortable with that because that makes her who she is. That makes our relationship better.'"
It is vital, Pinero said, to talk honestly about things that children may not be able to see but that make up a healthy relationship.
"It's all about creating space for people to have lives outside their relationships and to see that they don't depend on relationships for everything," he said. "I think that's absolutely one of the biggest things that an adult can do for a young person."
The report recommends some school-based prevention programs that are being implemented around the country. They're new and are being evaluated; no one is sure yet that they will be effective. But school is a natural place to implement cures for the problem, since it's a place where much of the abuse take place.
Social media sites could be helpful, too, Zweig noted. "Although technology is obviously a source of risk for youth, it's also a source of opportunity for prevention programs and media campaigns. It can be used for good to do public health messaging around prevention."
Many parents make things worse or deflate an adolescent's ability to cope without meaning to, Pinero said.
"When teens are having relationships, parents have the desire to control that relationship, like 'nobody's going to treat you like that. I won't tolerate it.' But the bigger thing is to start looking at the young person as the decisionmaker in their life."
Asking "are you OK with that" is a good way to get a teen to think about boundaries and what isn't acceptable. It helps the teen develop both judgment and confidence. By creating a conversational space to discuss it, "that helps a young person shape their decisions. 'No, I actually don't like this.' I think parents just have a tendency to jump in and take over and 'that is not what your relationships should look like.'
"When you jump into the relationship, telling a teen what to do or not do, you disempower that youth and may actually drive him or her into the relationship that worries you." The magic words are, "How do you want me to support you?" Pinero said.
He tells teens if a partner won't let them set boundaries or respect them, be wary. "Anyone should be able to say they don't want someone to send texts from their phone or log into the other's accounts. Youths should be able to choose their friends without a partner trying to isolate them. It's okay to say, 'When I'm doing homework, I don't want to text.'"
Someone who won't respect those boundaries is not the right partner.
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