Investigating Cyber Teen Dating Violence

Feb. 10, 2015
Mobile devices undoubtedly contain a wealth of evidence of this type of abuse; however, the trick is in getting to it. Only 33 percent of teens experiencing dating violence are likely to report it for a number of reasons.

A number of studies have been published about teen cyber dating violence, but until last November, none of it was clinic-based. Then, a group of researchers from Pittsburgh and California examined the issue via school-based health centers, publishing the results of their study in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What relevance does this have to law enforcement or, for that matter, mobile device evidence? First, it was designed to measure the correlation of cyber dating abuse victimization to physical, sexual, and psychological adolescent relationship abuse. In other words, how strongly texting and sexting, social media cyber bullying, location-based stalking, and other behavior could be linked to physical forms of abuse.

Second, although designed for clinicians and school counselors, the study holds some important information for police, too. Whether you’re a school resource officer or have responded to a call for service from a teen, parent, teacher or other mandated reporter, knowing what to expect can help you connect the dots from concerning behavior to mobile device and back -- and, when necessary, build a good case.

Findings: cyber dating sexual and nonsexual abuse

During the 2012– 2013 school year, researchers surveyed 1,008 adolescents aged 14 to 19 years who sought care at California school-based health centers and associations. Citing that 78% of 12-17-year-old adolescents own a cell phone and that 63% exchange daily text messages, while 29% have daily communication through various social media websites, the researchers segmented adolescent cyber dating abuse into sexual and nonsexual abuse.

The results:

  • 41% of youth reported cyber dating abuse victimization during the previous three months.
  • 13% reported any sexual cyber dating abuse, while 37% reported nonsexual cyber dating abuse.
  • Compared with no exposure, low- (“a few times”) and high-frequency (“once or twice a month” or more) cyber dating abuse cases were significantly associated with physical or sexual abuse and nonpartner sexual assault.
  • Nonpartner sexual violence victimization is, according to researchers, “a particularly novel finding that suggests cyber dating abuse may be occurring in the context of social networks that involve greater sexual risk or that cyber dating abuse may increase vulnerability to sexual violence more generally.”
  • About 12% of respondents reported cyber sexual abuse. This included a partner trying to talk about sex when the respondent did not want to, asking the respondent to do something sexual, and publicly sharing a nude or seminude photo of the respondent.
  • 40% of female, but only about 29% of male, participants also reported nonsexual cyber dating abuse. This behavior included repeatedly trying to find out where the participants were or whom they were with (the most common form of cyber dating abuse in this study), as well as making mean, hurtful, threatening, or aggressive comments and spreading rumors.
  • 69% of respondents who reported sexual cyber dating abuse also reported nonsexual cyber abuse.
  • These respondents were also significantly more likely to have experienced sexual victimization by both partners and nonpartners, compared to those who had experienced no sexual cyber dating abuse.
  • By the same token, adolescents who reported nonsexual cyber dating abuse reported more physical as well as sexual victimization by both partners and nonpartners, compared with those who did not report nonsexual cyber dating abuse.

Researchers wrote that because both technology and the way adolescents adapt their behavior to it change rapidly, “this newer mode of communication (versus in-person or phone conversation) brings new capacities to victimize” that can be hard to anticipate.

“In particular,” they wrote, “our measurement of cyber dating abuse includes behaviors that could be perceived as part of normal sexual negotiation. However… youth were clear that they perceived these items to be asking about abusive behaviors. Moreover, frequency data indicate that youth experienced these behaviors often, and frequent unwanted behavior is consistent with other studies of [adolescent relationship abuse].”

What can you do?

Mobile devices undoubtedly contain a wealth of evidence of this type of abuse; however, the trick is in getting to it. A Teen Dating Violence Technical Assistance Issue Brief noted that only 33 percent of teens experiencing dating violence are likely to report it for a number of reasons:

  • They are afraid of retaliation or future abuse.
  • They don’t want their parents involved.
  • They don’t want to be “outed” as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender.
  • They believe they are old enough to consent to sex.
  • They believe the relationship can be “fixed,” i.e. that the violence can end without ending the relationship.
  • Immigrant adolescents may fear deportation for themselves, their families, or even their abuser if they report.

Under these circumstances, mandatory reporting can violate a teen’s trust in confidentiality, and lose any chance you have of obtaining the evidence you need to build good cases.

 The good news is that, according to a RAND Corporation study, teens do regard police as trustworthy, even if they back away from formally reporting dating violence in favor of turning to informal sources of help, such as friends or family. The conclusion: the door is open for police to work together with other providers as part of, as the Pittsburgh and California researchers put it, a “harm reduction approach.”

Among the RAND study’s suggestions for collaborative interventions:

  • A school-based focus on overall school and peer aggression and violence reduction.
  • Improving legal knowledge about dating violence.
  • Peer mentoring or counseling programs. By “targeting teen attitudes about seeking and giving help,” adults can help teens to educate their peers to identify dating violence and refer victims to formal sources of help.
  • Intervention programs that educate teens about “the importance of intervening when they witness an incident of violence or abuse among their friends and the best methods of doing so.”

The upshot of all this front-end work: when a teen does have a problem and feels comfortable enough reporting it, either to you directly or to you through another helper, you can build on the relationship you have to ask for consent to search the mobile device, gather the evidence you need, and proceed from there.

Further reading:

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

Cyber Dating Abuse Common Among Teens

Teen Dating Violence Technical Assistance Center Issue Brief

Curbing Teen Dating Violence: Evidence from a School Prevention Program

About the Author

Christa M. Miller

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 including Law Enforcement Technology and Officer.com. Christa is based in South Carolina.

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