Behind the Keyboard: Spotting Digital Dating Abuse

Upset woman looking at smartphone

Dating is supposed to be fun and exciting. But there are times when abuse can creep in and dating, suddenly turns dark and scary. When this happens, it is anything but fun. Instead, it is filled with jealousy, control, manipulation, humiliation, and intimidation. And it is more common than you might think. In fact, 1.5 million high school students across the country experience abuse from a dating partner in a year's time.

When most people think of dating abuse, they imagine a boyfriend being physically or verbally violent. But in the age of the Internet, technology is quickly becoming the weapon of choice for some abusive partners. In fact, many abuse prevention advocates are reporting a significant increase in the number of teen girls describing digital dating abuse in their relationships.

If you or a loved one are a victim of domestic violence, contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Identifying Digital Dating Abuse

Digital dating abuse occurs when an abusive partner uses technology, such as a smartphone, social media, a tracking app or another form of technology, to threaten, harass and intimidate a dating partner. Some of the more common ways this is done include sending excessive texts or messages, stalking a partner on social media, or demanding the partner engage in sexting.

A national survey of 2,218 students (ages 12 to 17) in relationships found that 28% of students had been a victim of digital dating abuse. What's more, both boys and girls can experience digital dating abuse. It is not limited to just girls.

The most common type of abuse is being purposefully embarrassed online by a current or former partner.

What's more, a number of high schoolers have reported that if they do not respond to text messages quickly they often suffer repercussions like physical violence, emotional abuse, name-calling or verbal abuse. Meanwhile, teens have reported that their boyfriends or girlfriends have set up fake social media accounts to test whether or not they are interacting with the opposite sex online. And some have even reported that their boyfriends require them to download a GPS tracking app so that they know where they are at all times. None of this is healthy or part of a normal dating relationship. And if it is occurring in your relationship, or if you notice other signs of dating abuse, you need to think about how to end the relationship before the abuse escalates. You may be the victim of digital dating abuse if your partner:

  • Sends you excessive amounts of text messages even when you are in school, at work or asleep and then gets angry if you do not respond right away
  • Expects you to be available at all hours of the day if he texts or calls; threatens to hurt you in some way if you are not available
  • Sends you negative, insulting, intimidating or threatening texts, online messages or voicemails
  • Uses sites like foursquare, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sites where you can "check-in" as a way to keep tabs on you
  • Requires you to install a GPS tracking app on your phone or insists that you "share your location" if you both have iPhones
  • Installs spyware on your smartphone, tablet, or computer without you knowing about it
  • Tells you who you can and cannot be friends with on social media
  • Sets up fake social media accounts as a way to anonymously spy on you online
  • Impersonates you online by hacking into your social media account and posting things that create issues for you
  • Tweets or posts negative, humiliating or insulting things about you; may also make fun of you online
  • Demands to have the passwords to your phone and your social media accounts
  • Looks through your phone, reads your text messages, checks your pictures, or scrolls through your outgoing calls as a way of monitoring your activity
  • Reads private emails or social media messages without your consent
  • Sends you unwanted explicit photos or videos
  • Pressures you to take and send sexual photos or videos; may also threaten to use those photos and videos as "revenge porn" if you break up

How to Stay Digitally Safe

At the beginning of a relationship, it can feel flattering to have a partner show a lot of interest in you by texting you a lot. But healthy relationships have boundaries. They also contain two people that have interests and friendships outside of the relationship. If that is not the case, then you need to watch for signs of dating abuse. And if your partner seems overly controlling about the technology in your life, make sure you take steps to protect yourself. Here are some additional ways that you can protect yourself from digital dating abuse:

  • Do not share your passwords with anyone.
  • Be careful about checking in at different locations; it makes it too easy for people to stalk you.
  • Do not check-in or tag your friends in photos without their permission because they may want their location kept private.
  • Remember that you lose control of any electronic message or photo once you hit send; don't send anything private electronically. Many times, messages and photos are used to embarrass or humiliate someone after a breakup.
  • Do not hand your phone over to anyone including your dating partner; this is private property and you do not have to share it.
  • Know your privacy settings and keep your electronic devices, online accounts and social media accounts as secure as possible.
  • Remember that you have the right to feel safe and respected in a relationship.

In a healthy relationship, your partner will respect your personal boundaries. He also will give you space and time away without demanding to know where you are at every second of the day. And, he will realize that it is appropriate for you to turn your phone off or to be unavailable at times. Anyone who does not respect these things is showing signs of control. And, wanting control over another person is the hallmark of an abusive relationship.

A Word From Verywell

If you or someone you know is experiencing digital dating abuse, there is help available. You are not alone. For instance, Love Is Not Abuse offers to talk, text, and online chat options for people dealing with digital dating abuse. You can text loveis to 22522 if you have questions and concerns about digital dating abuse. And, if you do not feel safe using your own device, reach out to them using a sibling's device or a computer at the library. You also can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE anytime of the day or night to talk with an advocate. Or, visit their website,, for a live chat.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hinduja S, Patchin JW. Digital dating abuse among a national sample of U.S. YouthJ Interpers Violence. January 8, 2020. doi:10.1177/0886260519897344

Additional Reading
  • "Behind the Screens: What Is Digital Dating Abuse?" National Domestic Violence Hotline.
  • "Dating Abuse Statistics." Love Is Not Abuse.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.