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Investigating Teen Dating Violence? Don’t Ignore the Cell Phone

February was Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Whether you’re a school resource officer or responding as a patrol officer or detective to a complaint by a young victim, parent, counselor, or other concerned individual, remember that much of the evidence you need may be on both victim’s and suspect’s mobile devices. In its 2013 “Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying” survey, the Urban Institute referred to a 2010 study that showed various forms of abuse via electronic communications:

Monitoring the whereabouts of a partner or controlling their activities by telling them what (or what not) to do, wear, say, visit, etc.

Emotional aggression toward a partner

Seeking help from third parties during a violent episode

Not responding to calls, texts, and other contacts (a manipulative behavior)

Reestablishing contact after a violent episode

Not all, of course, are criminal. Taken together, though, they can reveal a pattern of behavior that can be part of a broader pattern of criminal harassment, stalking, or other abuse. They can also contain evidence of actual crimes, including physical and/or sexual assault, sextortion, and cyber bullying. The Urban Institute’s study also reported:

Twenty-six percent of youth in a relationship, and 18 percent of all youth (defined as ages 12 to 17) said they were the victim of some form of cyber dating abuse in the prior year. This rate was even higher, at 37 percent, among gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth.

Cyber dating abuse occurred at a rate comparable to that of physical dating violence, and twice as often as sexual coercion.

Although cyber dating abuse occurred about half as often as psychological dating abuse, it also overlapped the most with psychological dating abuse, as 84 percent of cyber dating abuse victims also reported psychological dating abuse victimization. Further, cyber dating abuse and cyber bullying experiences also overlap, for both victims and perpetrators.

Fifty-two percent of cyber dating abuse victims also reported physical dating violence, while 33 percent reported sexual coercion victimization.

Fifteen percent reported they were the victim of social media-based cruelty in the year prior to the study.

The Urban Institute concluded that “few victims of teen dating violence and abuse and/or bullying seek help.” Those who do, by inference, may redact their complaints or be reluctant to move forward. That makes obtaining evidence up front all the more important.

What does the evidence look like?

At their most extreme, abusers may share intimate or embarrassing pictures or videos of victims via text message, email, and even social media among the teens’ friends and schoolmates. In some states, these images are considered to be child pornography, and possession and distribution laws apply.

Even solely between abuser and victim, however, the content of text or instant messages, social media posts, and other items can reveal name-calling, bullying, shaming, and demands for sexual activity which the victim doesn’t want. Both abusers and victims may refer, directly or indirectly, to physical or sexual abuse via text messages, chats, images and videos, or email.

Threats of physical violence, too, can take place via mobile device, along with sextortion—the threat to share intimate images or details unless the victim does what the abuser demands. And according to the Urban Institute, a 2007 study reported that some teens were “made to feel afraid of what their partner might do if they did not respond to their partner’s cellphone call, email, instant message, or text message.”

Not only content, but also frequency can indicate unhealthy dating relationships. Repeated calls and texts received from a current or former partner throughout the day and/or night, for a sustained period of time, can be considered harassing and perhaps even threatening. During an investigation, establishing these timelines can be just as important as establishing their sentiment.

While “victim-blaming” has driven a number of youth to suicide in recent years, bear in mind that according to the Urban Institute’s report, several studies have shown “reciprocal” violence among young adults and teens in dating relationships. Keep this in mind when collecting evidence from suspect and victim devices, and be careful to use the information as a path to leads, rather than ironclad evidence in and of itself.

Even apparently unrelated incidents may have their roots in mobile device or social media evidence. The Urban Institute referred to a 2011 study that reported eight percent of surveyed youth having had physically violent encounters because of something that occurred on a social network site. This can be an avenue to explore when you’ve responded to a fight on school property.

Best practices when responding to complaints

Ask whether the complainant has a mobile device, and if so, how many others they own or have access to.

Ask whether the abuser, or others, also have access to the same device(s).

Ask the victim(s) what apps they use to communicate.

Obtain any passwords to the device.

Ask for consent to search the device, and ensure the search properly collects, preserves, and documents the evidence. Make sure the consent is written and signed.

Don’t risk the potential loss of critical evidence. If the victim is in imminent danger, seize both the victim’s device and, if possible, the suspect’s. Ensure the victim has a backup device to call for help if needed.

Use the information you find not just at face value, but also to develop leads and lines of questioning.

Teen dating violence and cyber abuse

Aside from evidence collection and investigation, you have an opportunity to help prevent cellphone-related abuse. The Urban Institute noted, “Our findings on higher cyber bullying victimization rates in schools providing greater access to communications technology suggest that as such access continues to grow, schools will need to train youth on how to use technology.”

Law enforcement can and should take an active role in this training. As technology evolves, so will abusers’ capacity to use it to get at their victims and evade detection. Stay informed, and you can prevent and mitigate their behavior.


Christa M. Miller is Director of Mobile Forensics Marketing for Cellebrite USA. Christa has worked for more than 10 years as a journalist, specializing in digital forensics and other high tech topics for public safety trade magazines. Christa is based in South Carolina.