The COVID-19 pandemic has created many overlapping crises, and brought long-existing societal problems to the surface, including intimate partner violence. Typical narratives around intimate partner violence focus on physical violence between adults within a home. But those of us who work with survivors know the reality of abuse is much more complicated and begins much earlier. Verbal harassment, threats to emotional safety, and financial control can overlap and also escalate to physical violence.
One of the most under-the-radar types of intimate partner violence is technological abuse—harm perpetrated over the internet, cellphone, or any form of digital communication. When the city shut down to prevent the spread of coronavirus, most New Yorkers were confined to their homes. Much of our communication shifted online, creating an environment where this kind of abuse can thrive unnoticed. Experts believe that not only have domestic violence incidents increased during shutdown—demonstrated by an uptick in calls to the city’s hotline and police reports—but other kinds of intimate partner violence, including technological abuse, are also on the rise.
Technological, tech-based, or digital abuse comes in many forms. It includes a partner texting verbal abuse, or using FaceTime to check in obsessively. It can involve monitoring a partner’s social media posts or trying to control their interactions with others. It can mean obtaining passwords to a partner’s accounts, installing spyware or tracking apps on their devices. It can be pressuring a partner into sexting, or publicly sharing intimate images without permission.
This kind of abuse is pervasive, particularly among young adults—50 percent of young people aged 14 to 24 years old say they’ve experienced tech-based harm. About one in four say they have been harassed by a romantic partner via text, and that they feel a romantic partner checks up on them too often.
Experiences with technological abuse are incredibly damaging to young people’s mental health. They can feel surrounded, overwhelmed and terrorized online but lack an alternate space to access support. Young survivors of dating violence are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety, engage in unhealthy behaviors, like using tobacco, drugs, or alcohol, or exhibit antisocial behaviors and think about suicide.
Young people are especially vulnerable right now, since they are not attending school, activities or jobs. They are completely removed from their support system, including trusted adults who are usually in a position to notice changes in behavior and provide resources, and the long-term consequences are likely to be profound.
In order to protect young people and prevent abusive relationship behavior, we need to teach them how to maintain healthy relationships. We need to ensure adolescents and teens are equipped not only to identify all types of intimate partner violence, including technology abuse, but that they develop the skills to set boundaries for themselves and respect other people’s. This approach works, with research finding that that young people who received comprehensive sex education used significantly fewer acts of violence toward a dating partner by the end of 11th grade.
That’s why at Day One, an organization that works with young people to address intimate partner violence, we prioritize preventive programs alongside legal and supportive services for survivors. On top of community-based education efforts, we are a provider of the Relationship Abuse Prevention Program (RAPP) in partnership with eight New York City high schools to provide comprehensive, school-based outreach, education, and counseling on teen dating violence and healthy relationships. Early RAPP operates in middle schools, where we develop students’ foundational skills and tools to build healthy and safe relationships.
As the city plans for a return to schools, comprehensive sex education for students, with a focus on healthy relationships, needs to be part of those plans. Educators and other school-based professionals must be trained as well. The pandemic has proven that now, more than ever, this type of education isn’t a luxury. It is necessary to ensure young people enter into safe and healthy relationships—both online and off— and continue those practices as they become adults. The only way to meaningfully address this kind of violence and abuse is to prevent it.
Stephanie Nilva is the Executive Director of Day One.