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Examining the perceived harms of digital dating abuse

Writers: Safa Nadeem & Briana De Roo

Editor: Holly Funk

Abusive actions in close relationships are common. Ways of dating digitally have impacted the types of dating abuse that can happen. Digital Dating Abuse (DDA) is abuse that happens using technology, like computers or phones. But not everyone agrees on what types of actions are harmful, or even what DDA is. Researchers in our lab asked university students how harmful they think different kinds of DDA actions are. They also looked at how gender and age affected how people think about DDA, what kinds of DDA have happened to them, and what kinds of DDA they have done to someone else. Our results show that most university students thought each type of DDA was harmful.

The table below (Table 1) shows which behaviours were rated the most harmful. Only one, checking in (to ask where you are, what you are doing, and who you are with), was not rated as very harmful. However, older students rated checking in as more harmful than younger students did. This could be due to a change in culture for university students; technology may have changed our views on privacy, so monitoring behaviour might seem more normal to younger people. Also, technology monitoring may not be a DDA unless it is paired with other controlling actions.

Table 1 Ratings by university students of the harmfulness of types of DDA. 

BehavioursPercent that rated it “extremely harmful”
Threatening to harm themself or others if you broke up with them.85.6%
Distributing private information/images/video/messages without your permission.80.2%
Making comments or acts that were intended to embarrass, humiliate, or shame you publicly.79.7%
Behaviours that were intended to threaten harm, intimidate, or bully you.78.2%
Contact you to check on you and ask you where you are, what you are doing, and who you are with.7.6%

There were also gender differences in the study. Men reported putting pressure on partners and sending unwanted sexual content more often than women. Men saw these actions as less harmful than women and gender-diverse participants. Findings like this suggest that people may not realise that what they are doing causes harm. To prevent DDA, it might be most helpful to put our effort into changing the actions of people who cause harm without realising it.

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