We’ve all heard the stories about teens and sexting, texting and diatribes on Facebook. But what hasn’t been fully understood is how abusive technology can become, especially in teen dating relationships.

A recent study by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center found that 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. “We anticipated we would find kids in romantic relationships who were experiencing digital abuse from their partners,” said Janine Zweig, senior fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Zweig, along with fellow researcher Meredith Dank, conducted the study. “But what we didn’t anticipate was the overlap that we found with other forms of teen dating violence.”

Study Specifics

The Urban Institute study delivers some startling statistics concerning teens and digital dating abuse. According to the study, girls in a relationship are digitally victimized more often than boys, especially when the abuse is sexual. This divide widens when the reported abuse involves sexual behavior.

The most prevalent form of digital abuse is tampering with a partner’s social media account. More than one in 12 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.

Even more disturbing, digital harassment is a red flag for other abuse because such abuse in a relationship rarely happens in isolation. Eighty-four percent of the teens who report digital abuse say they also experienced psychological abuse 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.

Perhaps not surprisingly, 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 school grounds.

Digitally Speaking

Teenagers today use technology more frequently than previous generations. “The reason technology has made teen dating abuse easier is partly due to the amount of time our teens are spending using technology,” said Zweig.

While most teenagers have access to the Internet, Facebook, smartphones and tablets, it would be tempting to see results of studies such as this one and think that technology has made teen dating abuse easier. But what Zweig and her colleagues found instead debunked that idea. “We confirmed that it’s more likely that kids who were experiencing digital abuse also were experiencing other forms of teen dating violence, so it is indeed tool in the tool box of someone inclined to be abusive,” said Zweig. “Only 4 percent of the kids who said they were digitally abused experienced only that form of teen dating violence.”

These ultra-connected teenagers are even more aware of who’s saying what about whom—and how quickly bad information can flow from one person to another. “With the ability to text or be on a social networking site 24/7, you don’t have to be with that partner to be abusive,” pointed out Roy Baldwin, director of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs, Colo. “When used in a negative way versus a positive way, it can be relentless and really a source of control over that partner and be very invasive in his or her life.”