Teen Dating Abuse Magnified by Power of Technology

Nonstop texts, instant messages, and e-mails can exacerbate volatile teen relationships, and most of the time parents are unaware of the 'electronic leash.' (Photo courtesy ABCNews.com)
Nonstop texts, instant messages, and e-mails can exacerbate volatile teen relationships, and most of the time parents are unaware of the 'electronic leash.' (Photo courtesy ABCNews.com)

by Sonya Crawford, ABC News

Thirty text messages an hour. Dozens of cell phone calls through the night. Embarrassing pictures and comments posted on the Internet for the world to see. This sounds like stalker behavior, but experts say it's what teens in consensual dating relationships are experiencing. It's a level of harassment magnified by the power of technology.

"I call it an electronic leash," says psychotherapist Dr. Jill Murray. "I've had girls come into my office with cell phone bills showing 9,000 text messages and calls in a month. This is all hours of the day and night. And it's threatening. 'Hi. How are you? Where are you? Who are you with? Who are you talking to?'"

Most of the time, parents don't know about the emotional abuse, because computers and cell phones keep it hidden. Or they dismiss it because "boys will be boys" and as long as there's no physical abuse, they figure it's not that serious, Murray explains. In the meantime, the girls are too embarrassed to say anything or don't know better.

When 14-year-old Kendrick Sledge moved to a new town and a new high school, she didn't know anyone. But within a few months, she had her very first boyfriend. He attended a different school, but they saw each other as much as possible and kept in touch through phone calls, e-mails and instant messages.

As time went on, he became more controlling. He would use a mixture of guilt and manipulation to dictate who she could see and what she should wear.

"He said God meant for us to be together," says Sledge. "He would tell me no one else could love me the way he did. He said my parents couldn't understand what we had."

As a teenager in her very first serious relationship, Sledge says she thought this was normal. And whenever she ever tried to pull away, he pulled out his trump card. He told her if she left him, he would go back to taking drugs or worse, kill himself. Sledge remembers her response: "I need to be a better girlfriend."

Sledge says when she finally got out of the relationship, there were few resources to turn to. Domestic violence hotlines didn't apply to her situation and neither did information on child abuse. Outside of her parents, most adults didn't seem to take her experience that seriously.

"Adults dismiss teen relationships as not meaning anything," she says. "But teens are dealing with serious problems, adult-type problems. Girls do not get out in time. I was one of the lucky ones. I recognized I needed to leave."

The National Domestic Violence Hotline and Liz Claiborne Inc. have joined together to launch a new Web site www.loveisrespect.org as well as a hotline (866)331-9474 offering teens help from trained counselors and advocates.

Dr. Murray says the focus is not on trying to convince the girl her boyfriend is a creep. "I try to teach them love is a behavior, not a feeling. I ask them how are you treated every day? If he doesn't let you have friends, do you consider that loving behavior?"

And because of the role that technology plays in the abuse, she recommends creating an escape plan. It involves changing the girl's cell phone number, e-mail address, screen name and getting off social networking Web sites like MySpace and Facebook.

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Posted by R. Smith