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Cadernos de Saúde Pública

versão On-line ISSN 1678-4464

Cad. Saúde Pública vol.33 no.7 Rio de Janeiro  2017  Epub 27-Jul-2017

http://dx.doi.org/10.15090/0102-311x00138516 

REVIEW

Cyber dating abuse in affective and sexual relationships: a literature review

Roberta Matassoli Duran Flach1  * 

Suely Ferreira Deslandes1 

1 Instituto Nacional de Saúde da Mulher, da Criança e do Adolescente Fernandes Figueira, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.

Abstract:

Cyber culture with its related e-commerce, expanded since the 2000s through the advent of social network platforms, incites participants to engage in hyper-exposure and spectacularization of their private lives, with inherent consequences for personal image and privacy, publicizing private matters (especially those pertaining to sexuality and corporality) in the digital media. This raises the need to understand how the phenomenon of cyber dating abuse in affective and sexual relationships is conceptualized and characterized in scientific studies, which health problems are associated with it, and which social technologies are suggested for intervention. This form of abuse is a new expression of intimate partner violence that involves, among other practices, posting embarrassing photos and videos and intimate messages without prior consent, with the purpose of humiliating and defaming the person. The current study is an integrative systematic review, including 35 articles, with a predominance of studies in the United States (22). Types of cyber dating abuse range from direct aggression to stalking. Despite the high prevalence, especially among adolescents and youth, the literature highlights that this type of cyber abuse is often taken for granted. The suggested interventions are mostly for prevention and awareness-raising concerning relationship abuse, action by school counselors, and family orientation. The high reciprocity of cyber dating abuse between males and females indicates that future studies should attempt to elucidate how the dynamics of gender violence are reproduced or subverted by it.

Keywords: Intimate Partner Violence; Social Networking; Internet; Adolescent

Introduction

Contemporary sociability has been radically transformed by the virtualization of relationships, mediated by communications cyber-technologies, allowing new spaces for commercial, informational, aesthetic, sexual, and affective-amorous exchanges and political activism 1. The social relationships achieved by the worldwide web (Internet or cyberspace) establish a peculiar culture. As defined by Lévy 2, cyber culture is the set of techniques (material and intellectual), practices, attitudes, mindsets, and values that develop together with the growth of cyberspace.

As in any techno-scientific process, the successively incorporated transformations produce qualitative leaps in the modes of operating and reproducing technologies. Popularization of the Internet began in 1980 and has expanded exponentially since the 2000s. This phase, called “web 3.0”, involves platforms focused on social networks, backed by a new category of devices (smartphones, tablets) allowing faster connection, wireless remote access (wi-fi and wi-max), home networks, and Bluetooth and self-updating technologies 3,4. They allow not only instant connection, but also personal mobility, so that anyone has the freedom to express, produce, distribute, and share data, photos, videos, and text messages anytime, anywhere.

In cyber culture, the ubiquity of information, interconnected interactive documents, and reciprocal and asynchronous telecommunications within and between groups make cyberspace the vector of an open universe 2.

Still, just as it allows the “free expression” of ideas and lifestyles that allow all manner of human association and democratic access to information, the development of technologies capable of tracking personal data, attitudes, and tastes provides a unique opportunity for insistent marketing by diverse companies; this function is the backbone of cyber culture, establishing a kind of unprecedented “market panoptic” 5.

Cyber culture’s critics also contend that it uses its own logic and grammar to urge participants to engage in hyper-exposure of their identities and spectacularization of their private lives, with inherent consequences for personal image and privacy 3,6. In this context, individuals routinely take for granted the practice of posting all kinds of information to a multitude of spectators, including accidents, demonstrations, trips, requited or unrequited affairs, falling into and out of amorous and sexual relationships, and intimate photos and videos.

It is thus possible to associate cyber culture with the concept of “society of the spectacle”, coined by Debord 7. Still, it is no longer a matter of appropriation of the real through representation of the world via use of the mass media. In cyber culture, simulation is a path to the appropriation of the real (virtual reality). We change from mere observers marveling at the work (society of the spectacle) to agents of the work itself, as navigators, explorers, and actors (society of simulation) 4.

On-line virtual communities allow rallying around common interests, regardless of borders or fixed territorial demarcations, establishing a symbolic territory of belonging and sharing 8.

On-line social relationships are based on “hyper-visibility” of personal life on the media, posting private, intimate affairs in the digital media, especially related to sexuality and the body 5. If being left out of on-line social networks is tantamount to exclusion and viewed as antisocial behavior, participating in these same networks is hardly synonymous with the expansion of real ties of solidarity or face-to-face contact.

“...paradoxically, our experience of global connectedness is not turning us into more ‘social’ persons. There is little evidence that networks such as Facebook, Skype, Instagram, or Twitter is making us more compassionate or tolerant; on the contrary, such spaces are commonly used for disrespectful, violent, or discriminatory practices against certain social groups, showing that the discourses that feed prejudices are not static, but are updated and reproduced at the same speed with which we incorporate such technologies into our daily practices6 (p. 198).

On-line interactions can also serves as conduits for practices of discrimination and violence, especially between close persons such as peers and intimate partners. The violence occurring in teenage affective and sexual relationships began to draw more attention from the scientific community in the United States and Europe in the late 1990s and is acknowledged to have serious repercussions on the lives and health of those that experience it 9,10,11,12,13. According to recent studies, 20% to 50% of American teenagers have already experienced some situation of violence during intimate relationships 14, thus attracting the scientific community’s attention to cyber dating abuse.

Such episodes range from threats to insults in on-line social media and even the posting of photos, videos, intimate messages without prior consent, with the aim of humiliating and defaming the person, as wells as controlling the person’s posts and communications 15,16,17.

We concur with Dick et al. 18, Lucero et al. 19, Zweig et al. 20, and Schnurr et al. 21 that cyber dating abuse is a new form of intimate partner violence and not merely a form of cyberbullying. However, as some studies have demonstrated, this does not rule out an association between these phenomena, i.e., persons that have suffered bullying or cyberbullying have higher odds of also suffering cyber dating abuse 22.

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that is limited to peer relationships 23,24 and also constitutes a recent phenomenon, whose studies and first publications date back only about five years, especially in Europe and the United States 25,26,27,28. There is thus no consensus on it definition, even among the authors that have attempted to define the phenomenon 24,29,30.

Cyber dating abuse also uses digital media to communicate, but it is not limited to peer relationships (for example, there are lovers with wide age differences), besides also appearing in adult relationships (which rarely occurs in cyberbullying). Audience (exposure to witnesses) plays an important role in the power dynamics and humiliation in cyberbullying, which does not necessarily occur in cyber dating abuse. This form of cyber abuse occurs specifically between amorous and sexual partners or ex-partners (which does not apply to bullying) - which implies relationships of intimacy and trust of a different order than those involving peers, classmates, or friends. As emphasized by Zweig et al. 20, the capacity to readily share private information and intimate sexual matters concerning the partner can intensify a qualitatively different experience for the person that lives it.

The way the contents of cyber dating abuse are posted on the Internet makes it difficult to identify authorship, hold the perpetrators accountable, or prevent on-going reproduction of the same material in other digital media, accessed around the globe, even months or years later.

As reported in previous studies, teenagers are extremely vulnerable to these modalities of violence. On-line sociability is particularly appealing to teenagers, whose identity-building incorporates the Internet into their daily routine, where they use it to express and expose themselves 31. On-line technologies incite teenagers into engaging in hyper-exposure of their image, voluntarily and without any critical or protective filters. Thus, postings with intimate contents can be replicated successively to others 32.

Knowing the state of the art on cyber dating abuse can foster a better understanding of this rather opaque phenomenon, supporting measures to empower young people to reflect critically on the hyper-visibility of intimacy in on-line relationships, as well to reflect on new forms of intimate partner violence, now also mediated by the Internet.

This study aims to elucidate how the scientific literature on cyber dating abuse has defined the phenomenon, the terms used for it, the implications for health, and proposed social intervention technologies.

Methodology

The current article is based on an integrative literature review. This form of systematic review includes studies performed with widely differing methodologies, aiming to analyze the accumulated knowledge from previous research on a given topic and allowing the generation of new knowledge 33. An integrative review thus shows the state of the art on a theme and contributes to the development of new theories 34.

We adopted the six phases described by Botelho et al. 12. The first was the elaboration of the research question, which orients the article search and description of the sources. This study’s research questions were the following: “Which concepts and terms are attributed to cyber dating abuse?”; “How do the studies characterize cyber dating abuse (types, experiences, and consequences)?”; “What health implications are cited for those involved?” and; “What types of social intervention technologies are proposed?”.

The second phase was the definition of inclusion criteria for the articles: presence in the databases of the Virtual Health Library (BVS), MEDLINE, PubMed, and Capes Periodicals; any publication year up to and including 2016; any nationality; any language; and availability for printout. The descriptors were: Cyber Dating Abuse (CDA); Cyber Dating Abuse (AND) Revenge Porn (CDARP); Cyber Dating Abuse (AND) Sexting (CDAS); Cyber Dating Aggression (CDAgg); and Teen Dating (AND) Cyber Abuse (TDCA). Articles that did not meet the respective study objectives were excluded.

The third phase involved a careful reading of the titles, abstracts, and key words for all the selected articles. After reading each article and eliminating the duplicates, 35 articles were selected (Table 1).

Table 1 Characterization of articles according to databases, search key, and number identified, excluded, and selected. 

BVS: Virtual Health Library; CDA: Cyber Dating Abuse; CDAgg: Cyber Dating Aggression; CDARP: Cyber Dating Abuse (AND) Revenge Porn; CDAS: Cyber Dating Abuse (AND) Sexting; TDCA: Teen Dating (AND) Cyber Abuse.

* Excluded all articles that did not discuss “cyber dating abuse” and/or “teen dating & cyber abuse”, duplicate articles, and those published in 2017.

The fourth phase was the elaboration of a summary matrix of the selected studies based on the following variables: source/year, reference, country, key words, and database and source, objectives, and methodology of the study.

In the fifth phase, the articles were classified according to the established categories: conceptualization/terminology, characterization, and social intervention technologies. The sixth phase was the synthesis of all the knowledge according to the categorization.

Results and discussion

Characterization of the collection of articles

As shown in Tables 2 and 3, studies on cyber dating abuse are very recent, the oldest dating to 2010, and were mostly conducted by institutions from the United States (22), followed by Spain (6), Belgium (4), United Kingdom (1), Italy (1), and Czech Republic (1).

The largest share of the articles were cross-sectional studies (12), followed by literature reviews (5), surveys (5), longitudinal studies (3), case-control studies (2), quantitative studies (2), an essay (1), and an analysis of a quantitative and qualitative database (1), and only 4 articles adopting an exclusively qualitative methodology.

Table 2 Characterization of sources according to country, key words, and database, 2010-2016. 

BVS: Virtual Health Library; CDA: Cyber Dating Abuse; CDAgg: Cyber Dating Aggression; CDARP: Cyber Dating Abuse (AND) Revenge Porn; CDAS: Cyber Dating Abuse (AND) Sexting; TDCA: Teen Dating (AND) Cyber Abuse.

Table 3 Characterization of sources according to study objectives and methodology, 2010-2016. 

Importantly, the literature search focused intentionally on the phenomenon of cyber dating abuse and excluded the usual forms of cyberbullying, thus highlighting cyber dating abuse as a new expression of intimate partner violence. Table 4 shows the wide variety of terms in the scientific analysis of the phenomenon, where cyber dating abuse is described as follows: cyber dating violence/abuse (the most frequent term); on-line dating abuse; cyber aggression; cyber harassment/cyber stalking, intimate partner cyber harassment, technology-based abuse, electronic dating aggression/cyber-stalking, technology, and dating conflict, technology-assisted adolescent dating violence and abuse (TAADVA), digital forms of dating abuse, socially interactive technologies (SITS) abuse/violence, and partner cyber abuse, showing that the phenomenon has still not been sufficiently acknowledged and explored scientifically, and that researchers are still identifying its characteristics.

Table 4 Characterization of cyber dating abuse according to conceptualization, terminology, and suggested intervention technologies, 2010-2016. 

Since the phenomenon has still not been sufficiently defined in the scientific literature, as shown in Table 4, cyber dating abuse - based on the reviewed literature - can be described as follows: a new expression of intimate partner violence; an emerging phenomenon with specific characteristics and elements that are different from the violence that takes place in face-a-face amorous exchange and cyberbullying, perpetrated through Internet and digital technologies with no geographic or temporal barriers to its expression, intended to harm the partner, and with relevant consequences for the victims’ mental health.

As further shown in Table 4, the following types of cyber abuse are identified: (1) direct aggression and control; (2) association with other traditional types of intimate partner violence; and (3) interaction between cyber abuse and sexting.

Direct aggression involves deliberate behaviors through the use of technologies that allow access to the social media, intended to harm the partner through threats, insults, dissemination of private information, including personal photos and videos, and identity theft through the creation of a false profile for the current or former partner on a social network, and control/monitoring or stalking or invasion of the current partner or former partner’s privacy in order to track the last connection or use the partner’s password without their consent to check their e-mail, messages, phone contacts, social network, or even to monitor their location with a global positioning system (GPS), through insistent phone contacts, or posting photos and videos intended to humiliate and embarrass the partner or ex-partner 19,22,35,36,37,41,42,43,46,47,48,49,50,51,52,53,54,55,56.

According to Borrajo et al. 36 on the dynamics of such dissemination, more than 50% of the reported cases of cyber dating abuse were practiced via message services or message apps like Whatsapp, 40% via social networks like Facebook, and 7% via e-mail. This distribution also shows young people’s preference for certain social media 5.

Concerning cyber dating abuse and the association with traditional forms of intimate partner violence (“off-line violence”), the scientific findings suggest that victims of violence in the context of face-to-face amorous exchanges are also more prone to victimization by their partners in the on-line setting 37,40,42,43,44,47,48,49,52,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62. However, there is no consensus on which forms of face-to-face violence are determinant for cyber dating abuse in the relationship. The authors define “traditional forms of dating violence” as face-to-face relationships involving a range of violent and coercive behaviors, including verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, harassment, and stalking in the context of a past or current relationship 37,40,42,43,44,47,48,49,52,54,55,56,57,58,59,60,61,62.

Considering the ease and immediacy afforded by new on-line technologies for the dissemination of abusive content, young people can experience up to 23 different incidents of cyber dating abuse in less than 6 months 36, with a predicted increase in the occurrence of such abuse given its indirect nature, the lack of geographic-temporal boundaries, and the frequent reciprocity of these acts 19,35,36,37,39,41,45,54,55,56,61.

Although acknowledging this high prevalence, the literature has emphasized that cyber dating abuse among adolescents is often taken for granted and confused with “proof of love” and caring, where abusive behaviors involving control and intimidation are justified by a romanticized view of love 35,36,37 or as “just a joke” 36. Adolescents generally do not view the various forms of on-line emotional abuse and cyber control as violence, but as “annoying” behaviors by partners 19.

Other studies also show high prevalence of cyber dating abuse victimization and perpetration in both males and females, but with distinct gender characteristics 37, since women tend to practice “control and monitoring” 19,36,55,61 while men tend to practice “direct aggression” by sharing the partner’s images and sexting messages 19,22,45,52,53,55,56,58,62,63,64 after the relationship ends, making revenge porn “viral” 19,35.

Another issue that apparently affects girls and boys differently is the intensity 35 with which girls experience the emotional consequences of cyber dating abuse, although there are no significant gender differences in the justifications offered for it (jealousy, “joking”, payback, or anger and the desire to cause harm) 36.

In a study of teenagers by Lucero et al. 19, for girls, “monitoring” is a crucial component of the amorous relationship, and they often create false profiles in social networks in order to monitor photos, e-mail, messages, and whatever they can find out about what their boyfriends have been doing in cyberspace. Just as they believe that sharing passwords is a sign of trust, love, and commitment to the relationship, in this context, erasing other girls’ messages from the boyfriend’s cellphone is quite common 19. Meanwhile, boys reported that they were aware of their girlfriends’ monitoring them constantly in the social networks and that they do not like to reveal their passwords, which they only do when the couple has already established mutual trust 19.

Thus, control and jealousy by girls is not viewed as abusive behavior, but as a positive and normal way of protecting the relationship, as a demonstration of love 19.

Considering the interactions between different forms of cyber dating abuse and sexting, it is important to note that the latter term first appeared in the United States as the combination of two words, “sex” and “texting”. Sexting consists of sending text messages, photographs, and videos with sexual connotations and nudity to a given person or crowd 32,65. While sexting as a consensual practice is not considered a form of violence, unconsented posting of it as a form of revenge porn is a kind of cyber dating abuse.

Revenge porn is most common following the termination of an amorous and sexual relationship - as the literature shows - when one or both ex-partners use the Internet to share intimate photos and videos recorded during the relationship without the other partner’s consent, intended to defame, humiliate, blackmail, and/or take revenge 66.

s regards associations between cyber dating abuse and the mental health of the teenage victims, the literature reports high rates of posttraumatic stress disorder 36,54, substance abuse 20,38,43,44,56,60,64, anxiety 20,36,38,43,54,62,64, aggressiveness/hostility 20,38,43,54, sleep disorders 54, depressive symptoms 20,36,38,43,46,54,56,61,62,64, self-inflicted violence 46, and suicidal ideation and suicide attempts 54,56.

Factors associated with sexual and reproductive health 18,20,40,41,43,44,46,50,60,64 are reported by Jackson et al. 46 and Miller & McCauley 50, highlighting that cyber dating abuse and reproductive coercion are the most recent forms of intimate partner abuse. Dick et al. 18 found that girls with recent exposure to cyber dating abuse showed 2 to 4 times higher odds of failure to use any form of contraception and 3 to 6 times higher odds of reproductive and/or “sexual risk behaviors” when compared to those who had not been exposed to cyber dating abuse, indicating again the synergy between the dynamics of violence in on-line and face-to-face relationships.

Other possible harmful outcomes for teen victims of cyber dating abuse are low school performance 20,38,56 and delinquent behaviors 20,38.

Concerning social intervention technologies, all the studies analyzed here acknowledge the need for approaches that prioritize confronting this new modality of intimate partner violence.

Borrajo et al. 35 recommend preventive programs targeting preteen boys and girls and that challenge the justifications cited by teenagers for relationship abuse, such as “jealousy”, “aggression as a game”, or “payback”, in cases where one partner commits violence because the other partner already did.

Two articles emphasized that certain groups should be prioritized because of their increased vulnerability. Dank et al. 38 suggest preventive studies and professional interventions for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth, based on their study showing a higher prevalence of cyber dating abuse in LGBT teens when compared to heterosexual teens. Foshee et al. 57, based on an evaluation of the efficacy of the Moms and Teens for Safe Dates project, suggest prevention programs specifically targeted to adolescents exposed to domestic violence, since they are potentially vulnerable to dating violence. Adding to these proposals is the suggestion by Sánchez et al. 58 and Walrave et al. 45 reinforcing the need for measures to raise young people’s awareness concerning sexual risk behaviors and the legal consequences of sexting.

The suggestion of including professionals trained in identification, orientation, prevention, and intervention in cases of abuse in the approach to families and schools was highlighted by Dank et al. 38 and Murray et al. 51, who emphasize the relevant role of family and school counselors in orienting families and students as to the risk of dating abuse in adolescence, aimed at demystifying this form of abuse, often played down by the teenagers’ parents as harmless. Miller & McCauley 50 also suggest training physicians and other health professionals to identify various forms of dating violence, including cyber dating abuse. Another study suggests school programs aimed at the prevention of dating violence 43.

Johnson et al. 67 also cite the need to restructure the training curricula for school psychologists to include not only general knowledge on teenage dating violence, but also assessment and intervention in cases of cyber dating abuse.

Finally, the literature also points to the need for further studies focusing on cyber dating abuse. They suggest in-depth qualitative studies that attempt to elucidate the experiences of cyber dating abuse perpetrated by intimate partners in the modern technological world, aimed at prevention and intervention efforts 19,22,47,49,52,53,60,63 concerned with distinguishing youth with heterosexual orientation from those with homosexual orientation 38,46, and that relate sexting, alcohol use, sexual risk behaviors, depression, and anxiety to cyber violence in the context of dating 44,62,64.

Final remarks

This review reiterates evidence of differences between cyber dating abuse and cyberbullying, considering the three main types of cyber dating abuse (control/monitoring; revenge porn, including unconsented sexting; and direct aggression) addressed in this article.

The first difference involves the issue of audience (posts aimed at public humiliation in a peer collective), central to cyberbullying but not necessarily present in cyber dating abuse. In the latter, tracking and monitoring target the amorous/sexual partner and are done discreetly, without public knowledge or that of the partner. The anonymousness and secrecy of abusive practices in intimate relationships are crucial for their reproduction. For example, there are dozens of mobile phone apps (Android and iPhone) that allow remote control of the mobile devices, simple, easy, and without the partner’s knowledge, of all the acts done with the phone, including posts, chats, moves (via GPS technology), calls, photos, and videos, among others.

Harassment or control/monitoring in cyber dating abuse is known to the literature on gender violence/intimate partner violence, i.e., aimed at controlling behaviors and social contacts, to monitor friendships and possible amorous betrayals 35. The power relationship and power imbalance are thus associated with the idea of controlling the partner and are linked to a gender perspective.

Meanwhile, revenge porn, which includes the widespread practice of unconsented sexting and direct aggression, also appears in cyberbullying. Unconsented sexting is not even limited to amorous and sexual partners. Direct aggression involves acts that aim to cause harm to the partner, like threats, insults, slander, and defamation 35. Even these points of convergence involve different social representations: cyber dating abuse is often interpreted by victims as proof of love and jealousy (which is not true for cyberbullying) and is characteristic of intimate partner violence.

Cyber dating abuse is not limited to teenage amorous and sexual relationships, since it also occurs in adults, but young people are potentially more vulnerable to its effects 68. The harms to the identity, self-esteem, integrity, and privacy of victims of cyber dating abuse leave psychological scars, the extent of which is still unknown, potentially leading to withdrawal, depression, anxiety, poor school performance, and even suicide attempts and suicide itself 69,70.

Such consequences highlight the importance of a careful approach by health professionals when analyzing and addressing these issues with teenagers, as well as the professionals’ contribution to the identification of such situations. Although cyber dating abuse is a recent issue due to its on-line and technological characteristics, the theme of intimate partner violence has already accumulated experience in health and education, and suggests that discussing teenagers’ amorous relationships with them is a strategic and still insufficiently met demand, given this age group’s vulnerability to suffering and practicing various forms of violence.

In an age of relationships with on-line hyper-exposure, cyber dating abuse represents damage to the individual’s public image, which is essential capital in the field of on-line social relationships 5,71. Cyber dating abuse is also a new modality of intimate partner violence, challenging studies to better elucidate whether there is basically a continuum of acts between partners that are already violent in their face-to-face exchanges, or if the digital environment encourages those who would not otherwise practice such acts without such means. The high level of reciprocity in cyber dating abuse further indicates that future studies should seek to understand how gender dynamics are reproduced or subverted in this form of cyber violence.

We contend that interventions should focus less on the idea of controlling the use of technologies (since they are a central thrust of contemporary teen sociability) and more on a critical discussion of how different forms of violence are routinely taken for granted in relationships since they are first experienced by youth.

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Received: August 06, 2016; Revised: March 16, 2017; Accepted: April 03, 2017

*Correspondence R. M. D. Flach Instituto Nacional de Saúde da Mulher, da Criança e do Adolescente Fernandes Figueira, Fundação Oswaldo Cruz. Av. Rui Barbosa 716, 2º andar, Rio de Janeiro, RJ 22250-020, Brasil. matassoli@gmail.com

R. M. D. Flach and S. F. Deslandes contributed equally to the article’s elaboration.

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