Keeping tabs: Insecure teens use social media to harass, threaten dating partner

February 8, 2016

ANN ARBOR—A teen girl gets delayed text messages from her boyfriend. She feels a bit anxious and wonders if her partner is cheating.

If she sends her boyfriend numerous text messages asking where he is or checks his cell phone without permission to calm her anxiety, she is engaging in “digital dating abuse,” experts say.

This online stalking behavior is described as electronic intrusion—and it’s common in high school dating relationships, according to University of Michigan researchers in a new study that continues their work with college students.

Insecure teens use social media to create a “cycle of anxiety,” in which platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram serve as both a trigger for relationship anxiety and a tool for partner surveillance to alleviate anxiety.

And while digital media can have positive impacts on dating relationship quality and closeness, electronic intrusive behavior may negatively affect the partner’s mental health and sense of security in the relationship, said Lauren Reed, the study’s lead author. These behaviors could escalate to emotional abuse and dating violence.

“For anxiously attached individuals, access to digital information about a dating partner coupled with the capability for constant contact may make it difficult to negotiate digital boundaries,” said Reed, a doctoral student from the U-M Department of Psychology.

Reed and colleagues surveyed about 700 high school students who were asked about their current or most recent relationship, as well as the frequency of using the Internet and digital media. Students reported they sent or received between 51-100 text messages per day, and spent about 22 hours per week using social media.

They often monitored a partner’s whereabouts and activities using social media, such as who a partner talks to and pressuring a partner to respond quickly to calls and messages.

Girls more frequently engaged in electronic intrusion, spent more hours social networking and experienced higher anxiety levels than boys, Reed said. In fact, girls considered electronic intrusion a necessary component to maintaining a relationship.

Meanwhile, boys use electronic intrusion to maintain their control in relationships, she said.

The findings appear in Computers in Human Behavior.

Other U-M researchers who co-authored the study are Richard Tolman, L. Monique Ward and Paige Safyer.


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