Growing number of cases of digital domestic abuse

By Jodi Mohrmann, Managing editor of special projects, jmohrmann@wjxt.com
Published On: Jun 20 2014 09:23:56 AM EDT
Updated On: Jun 23 2014 07:45:00 AM EDT

Experts are warning of a growing form of domestic violence they call "digital abuse."  It's when one partner uses technology to control and intimidate their significant other. Mental health professionals say it's such a new problem you could even be in a digitally abusive relationship and not realize it. Brittny says her ex-boyfriend's electronic communication was relentless.

"I was always fearful of not answering my phone when he called and not responding to his text messages," she said.

After months of high-tech harassment, Brittny says she realized she was a victim of "digital domestic abuse."

"Now, sadly people are using digital technology to exert their power, their influence, control 24/7," said Psychiatrist, Dr. Gail Saltz.

Digital abuse is just starting to be recognized by experts and goes beyond constant phone calls and text messages.  At the National Domestic Violence Hotline, many callers report their partner's smartphone and social media surveillance is increasing.

"Things that range from constantly checking to what they're posting on social media, asking for passwords, to more extreme cases as where partners create fake identifies on Facebook to see if they can get their partner to engage with someone else, and then accusing them of cheating and flirting in appropriately," said  Katie Ray-Jones the president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

And the popularity of being constantly connected can make recognizing a problem difficult.   

"Isn't this what everybody does? You know, everybody is on social networking, everybody is texting, isn't that just normal behavior?" added Saltz.

But Ray-Jones says that normal behavior can turn to obsession. It's important to recognize warning signs.

"Extreme jealousy, monitoring, isolation," she added.  

Cyber Crime Specialist Art Bowker warns digital abusers can escalate their surveillance by using apps which monitor their partner's location through their phone's GPS or installing key-logging software that records what they type on a computer.   

"No one needs to be a computer genius to install this software. This software is very, very easy to install," said Bowker.

Saltz says even more troubling is that digital abuse can turn dangerous.

"People of all ages are vulnerable to the use of digital technology to basically be abusive and that abuse that starts in that way can often lead to, directly to physical abuse," said Saltz.

Brittny says when her ex-boyfriend's digital abuse became physical, she ended the relationship. Now, she's warning others who think their digital boundaries may be violated, to reach out for help right away.    

"When I was going through this, I felt like I was completely alone," she said. "I didn't tell anybody about what was happening."

Ray-Jones says it's difficult to estimate exactly how many people digital abuse affects, because some victims don't even recognize it.  Experts say in some cases it's a relationship red flag that can be fixed if you work through it, but in others it can rise to the level of stalking or harassment. If you feel your safety is in jeopardy though you should immediately contact police.   For more information on how to tell if you're in a digitally abusive relationship and advice on how to deal with it, go to www.loverespoect.org.

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