Digital Abuse 101

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Digital Abuse

In partnership with That’s Not Cool

Can you remember the last time you went a day without being on your phone or your computer? Yeah, neither can I. Technology; social networking; instant communication. These are all things that have become integral to our daily lives. We want it. We expect it. We love it. But while so much about technology is awesome, as with many things, there are also some downsides. One of them is the potential for digital abuse.

What is digital abuse?

Glad you asked! Digital abuse is any abuse that occurs over technology (computer, phone, social media, text, calling, email, etc.). Before we go much further though, we need to understand what abuse is.

Abuse is harmful and/or coercive (making you do something you don’t want to do; often by force) behavior that is repeated over time in order to establish and maintain power and controlover another person.

Now, while the definition of digital abuse is simple and straightforward, there can be a lot of different ways it can happen. These forms fall into three big buckets: pressure, privacy, and harassment/threats. Let’s check ‘em out:


Pressure is trying to make you do something you don’t want to do (the fancy word for this is coercion). While someone could pressure you to do a lot of different things over technology (e.g. hang out with them, sext with them, engage in harmful behavior, etc.) perhaps the most harmful is when someone pressures someone else into sending them nude, or otherwise compromising, photos.


Privacy is a big one and covers a lot of ground. Essentially, it is when someone violates your privacy online, or uses technology to violate your privacy. Here are (some) examples:

  • Demanding/pressuring/coercing you for your passwords to your online accounts, phone, or computer.
  • Accessing your accounts, phone, or computer and posting/communicating as you without your permission.
  • Taking embarrassing and/or compromising pictures/videos of you and sending them to others or posting them online without your permission (we aren’t talking about your run of the mill sharing of photos or videos here that social media is designed for).
  • Using information through social media or otherwise to stalk you.
  • Using information about you online to pressure or harass you.
  • Spreading rumors about you through technology.


This is exactly what you think it is: when people are mean, threatening, or just generally make you uncomfortable online. Some examples:

  • Sending unwanted sexually explicit pictures and/or messages.
  • Sending an inappropriate amount of messages or ignoring your requests for them to stop, or reduce, the amount of messages they send you.
  • Threats sent over text, social media, etc. Threats can be about anything, from threatening to embarrass you to others, threatening to hurt themselves if you don’t do what they want, to threatening you physically, and everything in between.
  • Using posts/pictures or other material sent through text or on your social media to embarrass you or make fun of you.
  • Writing mean or embarrassing things about you online or over text/email.

Why is this a big deal?

For a number of reasons. First and foremost — digital abuse is a huge RED FLAG. What that means is that when someone is abusive over technology it often means that they will be abusive in “real life” too. 96% (!) of teens who experience digital abuse will experience other forms of abuse from their partner like emotional abuse (insults, yelling, etc.), physical abuse (hitting, punching, etc.), and sexual abuse (sexual assault/rape).

It also has its own effects, too: digital abuse takes its toll and causes people to feel scared, anxious, depressed, and more about going online, looking at their phone, or interacting with others in “real life” when the digital abuse spills over in the form of rumors or embarrassment.

These effects can have serious consequences. We have all heard the stories about cyberbullying that has resulted in the suicides of teens and others. It is never in “good fun,” “just a joke,” or some other excuse that deflects from the seriousness of this issue.

So, what can I do?

Lots of things! But first, it is important to know that it is NEVER your fault if someone is abusing, harassing, or threatening you. In the end, they are one that really needs to change their behavior. However, with that said, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself and combat digital abuse:

  1. Set boundaries and say no. Know your boundaries and tell people when they cross them. If they don’t listen, end it. People should always respect your boundaries and listen to you when when you tell them to stop.
  2. Never share your passwords. Related to boundaries, but someone’s “love” should never be based on whether or not you share your passwords or other private information with someone.
  3. Block; document; report. If someone is bothering you, block ‘em! You can block phone numbers, email address, and users on social media. Document what they are doing (take screenshots). If you feel comfortable, report them: to your school, to the police, etc. Many schools and states have policies and laws against digital abuse. Learn them too!
  4. Tell someone. It’s never wise to keep things bottled up – especially when someone is hurting you. Tell someone you trust: a parent, a teacher, a school counselor, a friend, or even someone at a local domestic violence/dating abuse agency, so that someone else knows, can support you, and help you if that is what you want.
  5. Don’t participate; call it out! Don’t EVER join in on abusive behavior online (helping to spread rumors, LOLing, “liking” mean comments, etc.). If you see someone being abused online (over social media) and you feel comfortable, call it out and let the target know you are there for them (either online or in person). Report things you see online to a trusted adult, your school, or even the police if it is serious enough.
  6. Help out! If someone tells you that they are being abused online, always listen and believe them first. Give them options (see the suggestions above!), and always have their back. That means, even if they don’t want to report it when you think they should, respect their decision. You are there for them, not to tell them what to do.

tabú tip!

Digital abuse, and abuse of all forms, is never your fault. Take some time to think through your boundaries, online and in real life. When you know your boundaries, it’s easier for you to enforce them and protect yourself. But if it does happen, don’t keep it to yourself; tell someone you trust and get some help.

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