For teens, cellphones are an essential tool for everything from social networking to video games. For parents, knowing their child has a cellphone provides a sense of security. But for a substantial number of teens who are dating, communications on cellphones and computers are taking a turn toward obsession and abuse.
It's a side of kids' social lives that many parents aren't aware of, according to a study released last week by Liz Claiborne Inc. In partnership with the National Domestic Violence Hotline, the company has also just launched loveisrespect.org, the first national website and 24-hour help line that specifically addresses teen dating abuse.
In the survey, conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited, 20 to 30 percent of teens who had been in relationships said their partner had constantly checked in on them, had harassed or insulted them, or had made unwanted requests for sexual activity, all via cellphones or text messages. One out of 4 reported hourly contact with a dating partner between midnight and 5 a.m. – in some cases, 30 times per hour. And 1 out of 10 had received physical threats electronically. A much smaller percentage of parents reported that their teens had had such experiences.
"Dating violence has always had this core feature ... of trying to control the thoughts, feelings, and actions of another person," says Julie Kahn, program director of the Transition House Dating Violence Intervention Program in Cambridge, Mass. "When you add the technological piece, there are more ways to track someone, to keep someone on an 'electronic leash,' if you will."
Ms. Kahn has frequently heard teens say that their boyfriend or girlfriend gave them a cellphone with prepaid minutes; one couple recently told her that to show their love, they've swapped Web-page passwords. Her group encourages young people to reflect more on what's appropriate at various stages of a relationship, how to establish boundaries, and to honor their own sense of independence.
Loveisrespect.org offers teens information about how to form good relationships – and recognize warning signs of abuse.
"A lot of young people ... they're just going with what their friends might say or what they might see on the media," says Nathaniel Cole, a sophomore at the University of Maryland and a member of the youth task force that helped launch the initiative.
"The website explains what a healthy relationship is, so it's helping to combat these negative images," says Mr. Cole, who is also a member of Men Can Stop Rape, a nonprofit in Washington.
The website features live, secure chats with trained peers and professionals, who can offer advice and referrals to local resources. It also offers guidance for parents and friends of teens who appear to be in an abusive dating situation.
Had such a site been available for Kendrick Sledge, she might have made a quicker exit from her first relationship, a four-month ordeal when she was 14.
"We started officially dating through Instant Messenger," she recalls on a break between classes at Boston University. Her boyfriend was a senior at a different high school, but she had met him at summer camp and was new to the area, so her world revolved around him. Her parents objected and tried to cut off their communication. "They shut down my e-mail with a password [but didn't know] I opened a free e-mail account," she says. "At one point he offered to buy me my own cellphone. Luckily I never took him up on that."
Only in hindsight could Ms. Sledge see how manipulative he was – telling her no one would love her the way he did, threatening to kill himself if she left him. Occasionally there was also physical abuse, she says.
Finally, she ended it. But she hadn't told her parents anything, and she lived in fear for the next month or two, until she heard he had been arrested. She never learned what the charges were, but she was relieved to learn he was being sent to reform school.
After the breakup, Sledge typed the words "controlling boyfriend" into an Internet search engine. "I really didn't know what had happened to me. I had no clue teen dating violence even existed," she says. By her senior year she was ready to write a thesis about it and start educating her high school peers. That's when her parents found out the details.
Now Sledge is sharing her story through the Liz Claiborne task force. In order for kids to stand up against inappropriate behavior, they "have to have the mental, the spiritual strength to say, 'This is wrong,' " she says.
How can adults be most helpful? "Don't immediately attack the abuser," she advises. It's a natural instinct to tell someone, "That person's wrong for you," she says, but that will cause victims to defend their dating partners. "If you approach the situation as, 'I'm concerned about you,' that opens more doors."
As communication technology has become pervasive, "teen dating abuse has skyrocketed," says Jill Murray, an author of several books on the subject and a psychotherapist in Laguna Niguel, Calif. She's seen a case of a teen logging more than 9,000 cellphone calls and text messages monthly. The attention seems flattering at first, she says, but later a girl or boy "feels smothered and doesn't know how to get out."
Dr. Murray says parents have an obligation "to limit cellphone and computer use to something reasonable." She advises blocking the computer and taking away cellphones overnight.
In the survey, 28 percent of parents said they limit electronic communications when their teens are dating, but only 18 percent of teens said their parents set such limits.
Loveisrespect.org might be able to break down some of teens' secrecy. But if they opt not to talk with parents, "we want to reach the teens wherever they are," says Jane Randel, spokeswoman for Liz Claiborne, which has been working to end domestic violence since 1991.