The adolescent years have always been about development. Our bodies begin the shift to their adult form, our brains are flooded by hormones and other chemicals that affect the way we see the world, educators ratchet up the complexity and depth of what they’re teaching, and parents suddenly create higher and higher expectations.
But in the minds of most adolescents, all that takes a back seat to what’s really important: love. Yes, teens are taking on new responsibilities and demonstrating clear signs that they’re becoming adults. Still, in the adolescent world, so much centers around attraction to others. From serious crushes, to endless “do you think he/she likes me?” conversations, to group social functions and actual dates, to even early discussions about marriage, love and relationships become a central focus.
That’s nothing new. Our parents went through it, as did our grandparents, and their parents. But something that is new is having an astonishing effect on young people, and it’s a legitimate cause for concern: abusive behavior facilitated by the use of technology has become widespread. Even more chilling, teens are not recognizing it as abuse, rather as something that’s normal or to be expected.
Technology has been central to young people’s lives from an early age. That constant connection is particularly pronounced when it comes to early relationships. The use of technology is playing a key role in the formation of adolescent sexual identities and what happens in their intimate relationships. No longer do teens spend hours on the family’s extension phone, trying to find privacy while talking to a significant other. Instead, they’re up well into the wee hours, texting, snapchatting, and face-timing with each other.
Sound like innocent teen behavior to you? On the surface, maybe. But when you see what’s happening with that communication, it quickly moves from charming to concerning. One major study found that more than 35 percent of teens report that their partners use technology to monitor their locations, who they’re spending time with, and what they’re doing. Another study found that 1 in 4 teens reported that a boyfriend or girlfriend checked the text messages on their phones without permission, and 1 in 10 demanded that they share passwords. More chilling, a substantial number of dating partners used texting or the internet to harass or insult them. And 17 percent reported that a boyfriend or girlfriend impersonated them online or in texting.
What makes this even more troubling is that most teens just don’t know better. They don’t have the experience to recognize these actions as abusive behaviors. Nor do the people they turn to for advice: their peers. In fact, when they see that those peers are experiencing the same thing, it’s understandable that they assume it’s a normal part of romantic relationships.
All this is happening with little or no adult supervision. Parents of “good” kids assume that if their sons or daughters are experiencing these problems, they’ll turn to Mom and Dad. Nope. The studies found that 82 percent didn’t tell their parents that a dating partner was demanding sex, 78 percent didn’t own up that the boyfriend or girlfriend was harassing them through technology, and 77 percent hadn’t told their parents that a partner made them feel afraid if they didn’t respond to a message.
Parents may find these developments unsettling. Those of us who work with victims of domestic violence find them nothing short of terrifying. If teens become accepting of domestic abuse in their formative relationships, they’re significantly more likely to become victims or abusers as they transition into their adult years, and to continue to use technology as a means for abuse. That could create a domestic violence crisis far beyond anything we’re seeing today, and it underscores the critical importance of educating young people about the realities of domestic violence.