What You Need to Know About Digital Abuse

What You Need to Know About Digital Abuse

Are we an obsessive culture? Some would say yes. Perhaps we are a culture obsessed with keeping tabs on our loved ones through digital media. One might go so far as to say we are relationship obsessive – suffering from intrusive thoughts that consume the mind and force us to obsess about our partner’s whereabouts both in person and on social media. These compulsive behaviors can even lead to negative actions in person such as physical abuse, stalking behaviors, or self-doubt.

Social media is an open door for unwanted comments, likes, dislikes, and banter amongst strangers. Many individuals cannot recognize the danger associated with our “free” social media platforms, especially when we are blind to the negativity occurring in these spaces.

Digital abuse, like many forms of abuse, is an attempt to control another’s actions. While the internet is free, we have rights as a consumer of the internet. These freedoms are clouded by obsessive behaviors that lead us to believe that we are without basic rights.

  • You have the right to control what you post and when you post
  • You have the right to comment freely
  • You have the right to accept friend requests
  • You have the right to upload media at your discretion
  • You have the right to say ‘no’ to sexting and sending nude photos


Despite feeling a sense of freedom to upload, comment, and live vicariously through the lens of your choosing, there is an increasing number of individuals who experience digital abuse. Many of these abusive interactions are between partners, and we want to help you be aware of them when possible.

Recognize the signs:

  • A partner asking for your passwords
  • Looking through your phone frequently or demanding information about your digital life
  • Putting you down in status updates/posts
  • Texting you often to make you feel as though you are disconnected from your surroundings
  • Uploading revenge content (revenge porn, photos, etc)


While it’s difficult to be present in the vastly growing realm of our online selves, it’s also immensely difficult for big online players like Facebook to track online abuse.

According to the Urban Institute, “25 percent of dating teens report they’ve been digitally victimized by their partners. Only 9 percent seek help, and rarely from parents or teachers.” A staggering 90 percent of cyber bullying victims said they were also psychologically abused. Many abusers avoid their true personalities and sometimes identities (nothing like finding out your dream man is nothing like you pictured him). The physiological effects of simply concealing your identity lead to unreasonable expectations of reality and of the individuals you may encounter in future relationships.

Psychologist John Suler suggests that in real life, aggressive behavior triggers an immediate reaction from a victim – a change in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, perhaps even violence. But in the online world, these deterrents are absent or delayed, which helps abusers see their victims as faceless, imaginary cutouts who have no feelings or are unworthy of empathy.


The effects of digital domestic abuse can last long after the experience ends. We found a connection between a history of digital domestic abuse and negative attitudes towards online spaces: More than one third of people who had ever been digitally harassed by a romantic partner in the past also felt that people were “mostly unkind” to one another online. Internet users who had been targeted by a romantic partner were more annoyed, angry, worried, or scared by subsequent online experiences than those who were targeted by someone else.


What Do We Do Now?

There are two forms of training that are said to help those who fall subject to digital abuse.


Inhibition Training

This idea is based on the approach that we can improve our self-control through continuous practice. Studies suggest that training individuals to, let’s say, push a button, can decrease impulsivities. The same theory applies to reducing the tendency to gamble, eat unhealthy foods, or practice unhealthy habits. These actions are often stimulated by enhancing the stimulation of the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is important for learning and decision-making.

There’s no research behind whether inhibition training really works to reduce the antisocial behavior seen on the internet. Self-control and aggression are correlated and should be explored as a means to understand the impulsivity of online abusers.


Empathy Training

Online abusers lack empathy.  This same trait is shared by violent offenders, pedophiles, and sexual offenders. Using strategies to enhance empathy could be the key to reducing the repeat offenders on the internet. Studies suggest understanding the perspective of the victim, role-play, and viewing footage of victims talking about the offense are said to stimulate the empathetic response.

Perhaps most importantly, we should teach our teachers how to listen to their moral compass and form coherent moral identities. After all, it seems those who lack in such skills are more likely to adhere to the digital abuser profile.




Ybarra ML, Price-Feeney M, Lenhart A, Zickuhr K. Intimate Partner Digital Abuse. San Clemente, CA: Center For Innovative Public Health Research;2017.



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