Unhealthy young love
When teen relationships become abusive
During Alyssa Cozine’s presentations about teen dating violence, she always asks the same question: “How many people have seen relationship drama play out on social media?” When she’s in a local junior high or high school classroom, she says, nearly every student will raise his or her hand.
“It’s something they’re all aware of, but they’re not necessarily talking about it,” she said. “They don’t know it isn’t OK, that it shouldn’t be normal. When you do stuff online, it’s not separate from your real life—it’s the real world, too, and it has consequences.”
Cozine is a 28-year-old community educator at Catalyst Domestic Violence Services who visits as many as six classrooms a day. In her interactions with students, she has observed the way teenagers’ social lives revolve around technology—and, if their relationships become abusive, how technology can be used to coerce and control. Aggressors may snoop through their partner’s text messages, share intimate and embarrassing photos of them on social media, and obsessively track their GPS location, she said.
Digital abuse is one aspect of teen dating violence, which the National Institute of Justice defines as “physical, psychological or sexual abuse; harassment; or stalking of any person ages 12 to 18 in the context of a past or present romantic or consensual relationship.” Of the American high school students who responded to the 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 10 percent reported being physically abused and 10 percent reported being sexually abused by a dating partner in the 12 months before they were surveyed.
The behaviors that define domestic violence for teens and adults alike are similar, but attitudes toward them are not, Cozine said.
“A lot of times, adults assume that teen relationships aren’t serious, that they’re going to break up soon anyway, so it doesn’t matter,” she said. “But when abusive patterns start during teen relationships, they actually become more violent and severe in adulthood, compared with abusive relationships that start in adulthood.”
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and Catalyst is trying to get the message to people who can help teenagers break unhealthy relationship patterns—parents, guardians, educators, coaches and counselors. To that end, Cozine discussed teen dating violence during a recent interview with the CN&R.
How does technology relate to teens in abusive relationships?
Social media is such a huge part of their lives. You know, 20 years ago, if you were a teenager in an abusive relationship and you left school, left the house, left the party, you left your partner behind. Now, with smartphones, they’re essentially putting their partner in their purse or backpack; their partner can constantly check in on them through apps that show their physical location. Or they can send 100 text messages in an hour, asking them where they are and why they aren’t responding.
What about snooping?
I’ve seen this in adults, too, but it’s sort of become normal for your partner to go through your emails and text messages behind your back. It’s actually a controversial topic of debate for youth. Like, half of them will say, “Wow, that’s awful, you definitely have a right to privacy,” but the other half will say, “Well, if you have nothing to hide, then what’s the big deal?”
What do you tell them about snooping?
It comes down to a lack of trust. If you go through your partner’s text messages because you suspect they’re cheating on you … that’s a symptom of the problem: You don’t trust this person.
How do you distinguish between immature teenagers learning how to have healthy relationships and a truly abusive situation?
Even if it is based in emotional immaturity, we have to take it seriously the second power and control dynamics come into play. Once those patterns are established in a relationship, they’re really hard to break.
How do they start?
At the beginning of a relationship, it might be putting pressure on them to stop hanging out with certain friends or family: “I really like you. I like spending all of my time with you. Don’t you want to spend all of your time with me, too? It kind of hurts my feelings that you don’t.” And, months or years later, when the relationship has gotten scary, the [victims] may not have the same connections with friends and family that they had before the relationship started.
Is jealousy an issue for young people?
Jealousy for teenagers can be really intense. I was working with an adult a while ago and she was reflecting on a teenage relationship. At the time, she was really into the Twilight series, and her boyfriend would get really jealous when anything Twilight-related came up. He would get mean and call her names because he was scared she was fantasizing about Robert Pattinson. Really trivial, silly-seeming things can be used to get control.
What are some of the warning signs of teen dating violence?
If they drop off the face of the planet and they’re hesitant to talk about their partner, that can be a red flag. Also, if their grades drop; if they stop engaging in activities and hobbies they used to enjoy; and if they’re really attentive to their phone—they feel like they have to respond to text messages right away and get nervous if they can’t.
Should adults bring it up?
Most teenagers will never tell anybody if they are experiencing abuse, and if they do, they’re going to tell a peer—a friend, not an adult. That’s why it’s so important for adults to educate themselves and support their teens.