Online dating abuse is a real and growing problem, according to the CDC. Find out how to prevent it, notice the signs, and how to report it to authorities.

By Katie Bingham-Smith
Photo by Getty Images

As a parent I try to stay on top of the various problems cellphones can cause for teens—cyber bullying, phone addiction, etc.—but I recently learned of another serious concern: online dating abuse.

The Centers for Disease Control says teen dating violence (TDV)—which includes online dating abuse—affects millions of teens each year and can take place in person or electronically. Data from the CDC’s recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey revealed:

I didn't realize online dating abuse existed until I heard a story from a friend about her daughter who we will call Mary.

Mary had been dating a boy for three months. They were both 15 and hung out a few times on the weekends under adult supervision, and he seemed like a nice boy as far as Mary’s parents could tell.

But Mary decided she didn't want to be dating the boy any longer because he started acting upset when she hung out with her friends. He began begging her to stay with him and to not end their relationship. When Mary refused, he threatened to share all the personal pictures she'd sent him on his Snapchat.

Thankfully that never happened. Mary's parents got involved after she asked me about her daughter’s strange behavior, and I recommended she check her phone since Mary wasn’t saying anything about the situation. My ex-husband and I regularly check our three teens’ phones, including reading private messages, when something seems off with them.

While we like to respect their privacy to a point, if they are acting distant, seem overly irritated, or hide their phone or laptop when we walk into a room, that is usually an indication something is going on and we need to investigate a little further for their own good.

Mary’s mother checked her daughter’s phone and felt guilty about it. But she likely helped prevent teen dating violence that could have escalated quickly.

Signs of Online Dating Abuse

Kristin Anderson, associate psychotherapist at NYC Therapy + Wellness, says most online dating abuse shows its head in different forms:

Isolation

If you see a romantic partner encouraging your teen to disconnect from friends and family and spend most of their time with them instead, this is a big red flag.

Threatening social damage

Unfortunately, it’s very common in cases of teenage dating abuse to see abusers use the threat of spreading damaging or explicit pictures, texts, or rumors as a way to gain control over their partner.

Threatening to hurt themselves or others

Teenage abusers may use threats of suicide or physical abuse as a way to control their partners and ensure that they don’t end the relationship.

Name calling and put downs

Of course, arguments come up in all relationships, but abusive teenage partners will often belittle their partners and actively aim to damage their self-esteem via verbal abuse. “Teens often think some behaviors, like teasing and name-calling, are a ‘normal’ part of a relationship—but these behaviors can become abusive and develop into serious forms of violence,” according to the CDC.

Minimizing and denying abusive behavior

Teenage abusers will often try to downplay any abusive behavior and insinuate their partners are overreacting about what has happened.

After the abuse starts online, it can escalate to in-person, too, Anderson said. Ideally parents would "have open and honest discussions about healthy relationships with kids early on," she said. You do this by discussing what respect looks like, and how to set boundaries before they even begin to date.

Physical and Emotional Signs of Teen Dating Abuse

Parents should look out first for physical signs such as bruises, unusual marks, or awkward posture, said Dr. Mayra Mendez a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica.

Signs of emotional abuse may be harder to detect. If you suspect something is going on, but your teenagers won’t talk and is "withdrawing from friends and family, not communicating, losing interest in certain activities they used to love, seem secretive, are easily alarmed or irritated, or seem sad or depressed," it's important to address it right away with them says Mendez.

A good way to get through to your teens is to "talk to them about what constitutes abuse in dating and interpersonal relationships. Share articles with teens to objectify the topic and remove the overprotective stigma which can result in your teen shutting down and withdrawing from the conversation," says Mendez.

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Reporting Online Abuse

If you find out your child has been a victim of online dating abuse, all the social media apps have ways of reporting abusers within the apps.

Facebook also has launched a new program with resources to help support those who are victims, and help parents respond when their children have been targets.

This includes a Not Without My Consent victim support-hub that was developed by experts and is designed to take action when private pictures have been shared without permission. This new program also makes it easier for victims to report when their private photos have been shared without their consent.

Reporting these instances, whether the pictures have been shared through Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, or Facebook should always be one of the first steps as these platforms are constantly working on making them a safer place for everyone.

Our teenagers need to know we support them are here to help. It's important not to shame them about what is going on or the likelihood they will shut down.

This is yet another difficult topic to navigate, but the more we know, the more we talk about it, and the more tools we have to stop it from happening from our kids, the better.

In my opinion, if we feel something is going on and our teens are acting strangely, we must be doing phone checks. I've done it many times, my kids know I am going to do it from time to time, and it's what Mary's mother did even though she felt guilty about it.

But who knows what would have happened had she listened to her guilt instead of her gut? I'm pretty sure all parents can agree, it's not worth the risk.

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