More Than A Quarter Of Teens In A Relationship Report Digital Abuse

Feb 21, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 20, 2013–The Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center on Wednesday released a new study examining the role technology plays in teen dating abuse. According to the study, 26 percent of teens in a romantic relationship said their partners had digitally abused them during the previous year using social media, email, and text messages. The findings, published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, are based on a survey of 5,647 dating middle-school and high-school students, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind to date.

Although previous studies have examined teen dating abuse, until today few of them illuminated how abusers use technology to hurt their partners. The new study, conducted by Urban Institute researchers Janine Zweig and Meredith Dank, gives insight into the methods perpetrators use, who the victims are, and when the abuse is carried out.

"New technologies–social networking sites, texts, cell phones, and emails–have given abusers another way to control, degrade, and frighten their partners," Zweig stated.

"Abusers use technology to stalk their partners, send them degrading messages, embarrass them publicly, and pressure them for sex or sexually explicit photos," Dank added.

Among the study's key findings:

  • Girls in a relationship are digitally victimized more often than boys, especially when the abuse is sexual. Overall, girls in relationships report being victims of digital abuse more frequently than boys: 29 and 23 percent, respectively. This divide widens when the reported abuse involves sexual behavior. Approximately 15 percent of girls report sexual digital abuse, compared with 7 percent of boys. The gap narrows when the reported digital abuse is not sexual: 23 percent of girls compared with 21 percent of boys.
  • Tampering with a partner's social media account is the most prevalent form of digital abuse. More than one in twelve teens in a relationship (8.7 percent) say their partner used their social networking account without their permission.
  • Acts of sexual digital abuse are the second and third most-reported complaints. Approximately 7 percent of teenagers say their partner sent them texts and/or emails asking them to engage in unwanted sexual acts. The same percentage says their partner pressured them to send a sexually explicit photo of themselves.
  • Digital harassment is a red flag for other abuse. Digital abuse in a relationship rarely happens in isolation: 84 percent of the teens who report digital abuse say they were also psychologically abused by their partners, 52 percent say they were also physically abused, and 33 percent say they were also sexually coerced. Only 4 percent of teens in a relationship say the abuse and harassment they experienced was digital alone.
  • Roughly 1 out of 12 teens report being both perpetrators and victims of digital abuse. Approximately 8 percent of teens say they were subjected to digital abuse, but also said they treated their partners the same way.
  • Schools are relatively free from digital harassment, but remain the centers for physical and psychological abuse. Most digital harassment happens before or after school; only 17 percent of the teens who report digital harassment say they experienced it on schools grounds.

Victims of relationship digital abuse include girls and boys, middle-school and high-school students, and teens of all sexual orientations. All have one thing in common: they rarely seek help from teachers or authorities.

A summary by Zweig and Dank is available here. All the publications and products from their study can be found here.

Today's study is the first of a two-part series by Zweig and Dank on the role of technology in teen dating and relationships. Research looking at digital abuse and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community will be released in the spring.


A total of 5,647 youth from ten schools in five school districts in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania participated in the study. Fifty-one percent of the sample was female and 48 percent was male.

Surveys were conducted in classrooms and administered by school staff trained by the research team. The survey targeted all youth who attended school on a single day and achieved an 84 percent response rate across survey sites.


This project was supported by Award No. 2010-WG-BX-003, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and educational organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation. It provides information, analyses, and perspectives to public and private decisionmakers to help them address these problems and strives to deepen citizens' understanding of the issues and trade-offs that policymakers face.