LAS VEGAS — During court-mandated private therapy sessions, teenage victims of domestic violence sit across from social worker Lora Watkins with cellphones in their hands – still sending dozens of text messages to their abusers. It’s maddening, but Watkins, an adolescent domestic violence therapist for nearly a decade, is accustomed to having an unwelcome third participant in the room: the cell phone.
This is a new dimension of domestic abuse and stalking, where an abuser’s reach extends as far as cell phone towers and the Internet will allow. Text message harassment, online attacks through Facebook and e-mail monitoring by a jealous partner can escalate into a sort of electronic assault that’s inescapable (because our phones are now extensions of our arms) and hard to understand (sticks and stones will break my bones but text messages will never hurt me).
If the text messages become threatening, Watkins recommends that victims transcribe the messages onto paper and have the document notarized to be used as evidence or as justification for a restraining order.
The nonprofit Family Violence Prevention Fund has come up with a name for the new cruelty: “digital dating abuse.” In other circles it’s been dubbed “textual harassment.”
On Friday, the Nevada Senate Judiciary Committee will hear Assembly Bill 309, which would add “text messaging” to Nevada’s definition of stalking, making stalking with text messages a felony. If the bill becomes law – it passed unanimously in the Assembly last month – Nevada will become one of the few states with anti-stalking laws that specifically include text messaging. As of March, there were four others: Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington, according to the Associated Press.
In February the Advertising Council joined the Family Violence Prevention Fund to launch a national campaign warning children about digital dating violence. The campaign embraces the medium it addresses: The national public service announcements direct teens to the website thatsnotcool.com, where they are then encouraged to snap cellphone photos of “call out cards” – barbed messages designed to be sent as text or e-mail to the offending party. Some examples of the call out cards: “Congrats! With that last text message you’ve achieved stalker status,” and “Thank you for the thoughtful text every 10 seconds.”
One in three teens reported receiving 10 to 30 text messages an hour from a partner keeping tabs on them, according to a 2007 study, and one in four reported their partners called them names or harassed them through text messages and cell phones. In January a Justice Department report on stalking in the United States revealed more than a quarter of all victims are targeted with technology, including e-mail and text messaging.
It often starts under the guise of concern: A boyfriend wants to make sure his girlfriend is safe, so he gives her a phone, Watkins says. Eventually, the check-ins become constant: Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing? Soon, the victim – Watkins mainly sees this in teenage girls – is dedicated to appeasing the harasser by tapping out replies. Grades drop, friends are shut out and the victim becomes isolated.
“This is an insidious process,” Watkins said.
And a process that parents often don’t recognize. Millions of teenagers send billions of text messages every year, so distinguishing between what is and isn’t safe is hard for parents and teens alike, said Brian O’Connor of the Family Violence Prevention Fund. Though young adults recognize physical violence is wrong, they don’t always recognize digital harassment as a problem, O’Connor said. What sounds like a nightmare to an adult – hundreds of text messages — is normal to teens.
“They’re desensitized, and they think it isn’t serious because it happens all the time,” he said.
When the Prevention Fund put groups of teens together to interview them about the issue, they often wound up texting one another from across the room.
Only adults, those who haven’t always had the Internet and cellphones, separate their online selves from their actual selves, O’Connor said. For teenagers, “it’s just living. For them, they grew up with the Internet, it’s going to play a real critical role in their lives.” This is why the typical parental reaction – taking away the phone or prohibiting Internet access – isn’t considered a viable solution.
For starters, O’Connor said, “taking away the phone is like pushing water up a hill. Technology is coming to your kids. You will not win that battle.”
And parents don’t appreciate how harsh taking away a phone or computer can be. “You’ve just asked them to cut off their arms,” Watkins said.
O’Connor and other advocates for victims say seminars on digital abuse should be built into school curricula, no different from kindergarten classes on inappropriate touching or junior high school drug deterrence programs. But these digital abuse lessons will become more complicated as people become more connected.