Feeling insecure about relationships and exhibiting anxious attachment often leads teens to engage in digital dating violence and electronically intrusive behaviors, according to a recent University of Michigan study.

According to the study, the availability of social media at nearly every teen’s disposal through smartphones and other electronics has given them the ability to electronically harass their partners and express insecurities regarding their relationships.

According to Pew Research Center’s “Teens, Social Media and Technology Overview 2015,” 92 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 report going online daily, with 24 percent saying they are online “almost constantly.” The report also highlighted that nearly three-quarters of teens own or have access to a smartphone.

This ease of access to technology leads to abusive behaviors in adolescence that are often predictive of abusive behavior throughout adulthood, the study showed.

Digital dating violence is defined as the use of technology to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a dating partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Abusive behaviors include sending negative messages online, controlling who the partner can and cannot be friends with or follow on social media sites, stealing a partner’s social media passwords and looking through a partner’s cellphone records to see who they are texting or calling.

Lead author of the study Lauren Reed was a doctoral student in the University’s  Psychology Department when the study began and said she was interested in the ways that new forms of media, such as the Internet, cellphones, texting and social media sites impact dating relationships and shape dating violence.

“What we do is we ask teens and college students about what they do in relationships and then we also look at how is this associated with other things,” Reed said. “If you’re engaging in an activity that makes your partner feel uncomfortable or unsafe, or if it’s one of many behaviors that you’re engaging in that control or manipulate or threaten or harass your partner, then those are some problematic behaviors that could be abusive.”

According to a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nationwide survey, 23 percent of females and 14 percent of males who have experienced a sexual assault, act of physical violence or cyber-stalking from an intimate partner first experienced one of these forms of relationship violence between 11 and 17 years of age.

The CDC reported that for the person experiencing the abuse, certain types of violence can lead to engaging in alcohol and drug abuse, reporting symptoms of depression and increased anxiety and ultimately having greater risk to be on the receiving end of these abusive behaviors during college years.

Richard Tolman, School of Social Work professor, said from his previous work regarding forms of dating violence, including non-digital abuse, it was clear the increasing use of social media and the Internet to control a romantic partner was becoming a major aspect of relationship abuse.  

“It was unusual to use media that way (in the past),” Tolman said. “Now with the dawn of the digital age — not the dawn any longer — pretty much everybody has that kind of surveillance monitoring technology available to them in their pocket on a smartphone. Eighth graders on up have access to this kind of technology that was once the province of mega-controlling abusive partners.”

The survey of teens was done in response to a UM survey done by Reed, she said, which included questions about common controlling behaviors such as monitoring a romantic partner and looking at a partner’s cellphone or computers without their consent.

In both the University survey and the high school student survey, researchers included a measure of attachment insecurity, which was linked to executing electronically abusive behaviors, Tolman said.

The high school student study surveyed 703 high school students from ninth grade to 12th grade and focused on more electronically intrusive behaviors than did the University survey, according to Reed.

“The reason that we did it in both age groups is that we wanted to know if these findings were consistent across age groups,” Reed said. “High school students (are) having their first dating experience, they’re new to dating, they might be more influenced by these digital media, so we wanted to replicate our college student survey in the high school. We had a better, more comprehensive measure of electronic intrusion than we did in the college survey, but we found still pretty consistent results across age groups.”

Reed said ultimately, these findings are indicative of what she calls a “cycle of anxiety.”

Insecurely attached high school and college students are more likely to engage in electronic intrusion in their relationships, Reed said. Seeing a photo or post on social media could trigger their anxiety, leading to increased use of electronically intruding behaviors in an attempt to alleviate their anxiety.

“The more you look and the more you intrude in your partner’s privacy, probably the more anxiety you’re going to have,” Reed said.

The question arises as to where the line is between normal social media and technology use in a relationship, and digital abuse, both researchers said.

“I don’t think we know enough to say where the exact line is,” Tolman said. “Part of that depends on the perceptions of the people involved to be sure. Unquestionably, there is some version of this that is normative. (However) saying that it’s normative doesn’t mean it is good or positive, it may be that it’s something that just about everybody does a little bit of.”

Social media use today is often an acceptable way to check in with one’s partner, Tolman said. However, when social media use becomes a pervasive behavior that continuously proves harmful to a partner and begins to define that relationship, it can cause psychological damage.

He added that was important, particularly for insecurely attached individuals, to know their personal boundaries as well as what their partners are comfortable with in terms of checking social media and other forms of technology to check in on a relationship.

“The findings from the study hint that … there may be aspects of times of insecurities that somebody brings into a relationship that could add to their increasing this activity in a way that could be problematic to the relationship,” Tolman said.  

Some previous findings have indicated that it is possible that young men and young women have behavioral and emotional differences in the way that they use and interpret social media. However, in this most recent study, Tolman said few differences were observed.

“We found that attachment and insecurity predicted perpetration of electronic intrusion similarly for boys and girls,” he said. “But we did find that, in our study, girls reported more perpetration of electronic intrusion than boys did.”

He added that this might simply be because females are more likely to be more honest reporters of their digital activities. On the other hand, however, this electronic intrusion could be intended for positively preserving and maintaining a relationship.

“Although there are some positive uses of digital media in dating relationships, and it’s great way to build intimacy and bond between partners, for anxiously attached teenagers and college students, this might exacerbate their anxiety and lead to potential emotional abuse,” Reed said.

Ultimately, Tolman said the overuse and misuse of digital media in adolescence for the purpose of controlling relationships can be predictive of adult behavior, as has been seen in other forms of non-digital dating violence.

“The issue is not so much stopping or somehow trying to temper the amount of use, though that might be possible, but certainly teaching people about how to manage boundaries more effectively and more self-management strategies and coping with this relational context that is now an everyday reality,” Tolman said. “It does signal a broader societal need, and certainly an individual need, for teaching people how to better manage these kind of relational issues when social media is involved, and when it’s not, too.”

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