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Digital Dating Abuse: What Parents Need to Know

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida
This post is part of a series marking Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. Learn more at Teen DV Month.

It’s dinner time, and your teen’s phone is buzzing or chirping once…twice…three times. “Can you put that thing away till we finish eating?” you grumble, expecting the usual protest. Instead, you notice that your daughter looks strangely shaken by what she sees on the screen. What could be going on?

Given all that we’ve heard in the media about cyberbullying, your mind may go there right away. But it isn’t the only digital danger out there. When a young person (or anyone) has an abusive, controlling romantic partner, online and electronic interactions can also become frightening, intimidating, and threatening. This is known as digital dating abuse, and today’s parents and teens need to be aware of what it is and the warning signs to watch out for.

What does this kind of abuse look like? Often the abuser will text and message constantly, pressuring the other teen to answer immediately and say where they are and who they’re with. If a response doesn’t arrive, the messages may become threatening. Abusers may also take or look through the partner’s phone, monitor email or Facebook accounts, or steal or insist on being given passwords. They may generally try to control online and digital interactions, limiting who the other person can contact and be friends with. There may also be pressure to send explicit photos or to engage in “sexting.”

At first glance, digital abuse may seem less dangerous than other forms of dating violence, such as physical abuse or sexual coercion. Yet due to the ever-present nature of our phones and electronic connections, it can feel truly overwhelming. And since digital traces can be almost impossible to erase, these invasions can create long-lasting issues.

Remind your teen that healthy relationships don’t involve pressure from others to be constantly available or to allow access to every part of one’s life. In general, any type of possessive, controlling behavior is a warning sign that a relationship may be abusive.  Teens should also know not to give away passwords or to ever send nude or partially nude photos to anyone.

According to one study, 40% of teens and young adults in relationships report experiencing at least one warning sign of digital abuse. However, the good news is that more young people are seeking help when these problems occur. And the majority of those who go to their parents for assistance report that doing so was helpful.

To start the conversation with your teen about healthy relationships, respectful boundaries, and what is and isn’t okay, visit Love is Respect, created by two respected nonprofits. To help your teen know where to start when it comes to talking this issue over with a boyfriend or girlfriend, try this organization’s page on Setting Healthy Online Boundaries. Also visit A Thin Line, a campaign developed by MTV in partnership with many nonprofits and experts, which features thought-provoking info, discussion, and real-life advice about digital abuse and digital relationship boundaries.

(Photo credit: texting by Jhaymesisviphotography. CC license.)


AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (2013). The Digital Abuse Study: Experiences of Teens and Young Adults. Retrieved from

Love is Respect. (n. d.) Setting healthy online boundaries. Retrieved from

Love is Respect. (n. d.) What is digital abuse? Retrieved from

AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. (2013). The Digital Abuse Study: Experiences of Teens and Young Adults. Retrieved from