Technology and unhealthy teenage relationships

Emily Robson considers how mobile technology is associated with abuse in young people’s relationships and how practitioners can best respond

Teenage girl on mobile phoneDomestic abuse is a topic of research across the world. I was lucky enough to attend three international conferences last year as part of my PhD:

  • National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence (NCHDV) in San Francisco;
  • 2nd European Conference on Domestic Violence (ECDV) in Porto, Portugal; and
  • Future of Gender Roles held by the European Association for Social Psychology in Berlin.

Over the course of 2 blogs I’ll be summarising the emerging research on how technology, gender and sexuality are associated with domestic and relationship abuse – and how we can use this learning to help keep young people safe.

In this blog I’ll be focussing in particular on sexting (sharing sexual images or sending explicit messages) and mobile technology.

The abusive use of technology

Tirion Havard from London South Bank University shared some haunting and compelling research on technology and domestic abuse at the ECDV. For her PhD research she interviewed practitioners to find out how mobile phones are used in coercively controlling relationships. Havard described multiple ways in which mobile phone technology could be used as an extended form of surveillance, for example perpetrators texting or using apps to track or check up on partners and even face-timing to verify their whereabouts. Havard refers to this as a ‘modern’ form of domestic abuse. She argues that, given the widespread use of mobile technology and its capabilities (GPS, cameras, tracking and immediate access), policy makers and practitioners need a better understanding of how it can be used as a tool of coercion and control in abusive relationships.

Mobile phone image

These interesting findings link to a seminar by Bonomi and Eaton at NCHDV in San Francisco on the ways men can use technology to abuse women. This includes sexting, doxting (broadcasting private or identifiable information about someone), cyber stalking and harassment. Professor Clare McGlynn at Durham University is also carrying out extensive and timely work to reform the law around image based sexual abuse to include issues such as upskirting (taking a photo underneath someone’s skirt without permission) and revenge pornography (McGlynn and Rackely, 2016).

Although the relatively new phenomena of upskirting and revenge pornography may seem removed from domestic abuse these actions are all, arguably, on the same continuum of violence (Kelly, 1987). The Oxford Human Rights Hub refers to revenge pornography as an old problem on a new media.

Although much of this research is about adult behaviour, the findings are relevant to young people who live in today’s technological world. Young people's lives can be consumed by mobile phones, social media, sharing information online, lack of privacy or increased surveillance by peers or partners and it’s easy to see how the abusive use of technology could become normalised.

Mobile technology is increasingly a part of young people’s lives and it’s important that adults have an understanding of how young people use it - and how it could be a medium for abuse.

At ECDV, Christine Barter talked about the Safeguarding Teenagers’ Intimate Relationships (STIR) project. This is a school based survey exploring how young people send and receive sexual images and how this is associated with domestic abuse in their relationships. The study had an extensive sample of 4,564 teenagers aged 14-17 across five schools in Europe (Bulgaria, Cyprus, England, Italy and Norway). The preliminary findings suggest that sexual images (sexts) are often shared with others without the young person who sent the image giving their consent. And girls are more likely than boys to have negative experiences if their images are shared without permission, such as feelings of shame, victim blaming and bullying.

Protecting children and young people

So what can we do to help keep children and young people safe from this form of abuse? Barter argues for a more nuanced response to sexting amongst young people. And with these studies in mind it’s important to consider the wider context of technology, culture, gender roles and stages of development in order to truly understand why young people engage in these behaviours (for reasons of intimacy, self-expression, flirting or peer pressure and coercion for example). Once we understand this, we can find the best ways to help young people have healthy relationships.

This resonates with much of my own thinking: if we don’t appreciate and respond to the complexities of young people’s use of technology, many of them will grow up without understanding the importance of consent, trust and respect. This could expose them to risks in later life such as revenge pornography and exploitation as victims or perpetrators.

Those of us who work with children and young people need be responsive in our practice and consider these issues from young people’s perspectives. While it’s important to understand how the rapidly evolving area of mobile technology works, we also need to consider the voices of children and young people, to appreciate their perspectives and the impacts of technology on them and their behaviour - whether it’s how and why young people send sexts or how technology affects their understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse.

In my next blog, I’ll be looking at the emerging research and thinking on gender and same sex relationships and asking how this can inform the development of relationships and sex education.

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  1. Barter, C. (2017). The sending and receiving of sexual images (sexting) and associations with interpersonal violence in young people’s relationships. In II European conference on domestic violence: programme (pp. 102). Portugal: Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences University of Porto.

  2. Harvard, T. (2017). Mobile phones, Foucault and fear: their roles in coercive control. In II European conference on domestic violence: programme (pp. 103). Portugal: Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences University of Porto.

  3. Kelly L. (1987) The Continuum of Sexual Violence. In Hanmer J., Maynard M. (eds) Women, Violence and Social Control. Explorations in Sociology: British Sociological Association Conference Volume series (pp.46-60). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  4. McGlynn, C. and Rackely, E. (2015) Image-based sexual abuse: more than just ‘revenge porn’. Research spotlight.