Walking Away from Tech-Enabled Abuse: Michael’s Story

Michael was home from college for the holidays when he met Taylor. Michael hadn’t had a lot of dating experience, but he knew he wanted a relationship.  

After trying out some of the common dating sites like Bumble and Tinder and nothing panned out, he came across a channel on the social platform Discord. The channel was focused on one of his favorite video games, and he thought it would be great to meet someone with that common interest.   

Michael met Taylor in the group, and they quickly made their relationship official. While they never met in person, things felt right and good for a while. They spent a lot of time together online through Discord, texting, and phone calls.  

Somewhere along the way, though, Michael started to feel he and Taylor were too connected—spending too much time together.   

And while it was great that he and Taylor could easily access each other with the help of technology, it was that very same technology that Taylor used to abuse Michael.   

Taylor became unreasonable, expecting constant contact and discouraged Michael from connecting with family.  

Michael saw other issues in his relationship, too. It seemed like he was always to blame for all of their problems. And Taylor became increasingly controlling in frightening ways, threatening self-harm and even suicide if he didn’t do what she said.   

Michael realized his relationship was unhealthy, but he credits his parents with helping him find the courage to break things off. When they witnessed some his communications with Taylor, they recognized the abuse he was enduring. They talked to him about it and it helped him decide what to do.  

Unfortunately, when Michael blocked Taylor on Discord, Taylor created new profiles and kept reaching out. When Michael blocked her number, she called from a different one. In time, Taylor stopped trying to contact Michael.  

Michael shared that Discord allows users to create multiple profiles and blocks are not universal, so if you block an abusive person’s main profile, not all of their profiles or future profiles are automatically blocked, too. He thinks that if there’s one thing social platforms could do to help decrease digital abuse, it would be to make blocks universal and enforce it.  

*Names have been changed for privacy* 

Cyber Abuse & Teens

Before the internet, abuse was harder to perpetrate in public spaces. Today, abuse flourishes day and night in the public space that is the internet.  

Similar to how a home can become a place of fear for victims of domestic abuse because of the lack of witnesses, the internet allows perpetrators of abuse to carry out hurtful communications and actions privately and even anonymously. 

While technology use spans age groups, it is particularly integrated into the lives of youth with one study reporting youth spending more time with tech than any other activity besides sleeping (Roberts & Foehr, 2008). And it’s hard to blame them. Youth are entering a technology-first world where the majority of their interests and needs can be most efficiently met online. 

A lot of what we do is increasingly moving onto the internet, including darker sides of human behavior, like abuse.  

With the state of things, what do we need to do to support teens as they grow up online? 

Keep an Eye Out for Signs of Abuse 

Parents and teachers are not seeing what happens online or in text messages and other private online communications platforms. It makes it all too easy for teens to become victims of abuse and it to go unnoticed, but can help to know what signs of abuse look like. 

Some of the signs of tech-enabled or digital abuse are the same as other forms of abuse, like isolation or anxiety and depression. The less obvious indicators might be being glued to devices coupled with receiving messages constantly. These may come in the form of texts, emails, or messages via social media.  

Connect & Listen 

While it may be challenging to express concern without seeming intrusive, if you are worried that a teenager in your life is dealing with digital abuse, it’s okay to express concern. If you need help figuring out what to say to help or what resources to offer, you can reach out to CORA any time for advice. Our hotline is 800.300.1080.  

A New Kind of Tech-Enabled Abuse: Deepfakes

One of the newer, more alarming types of digital abuse is called ‘deepfakes.’ A deepfake is a video of someone whose face or body has been digitally altered to make them look like someone else. Deepfakes are particularly dangerous because they can be used to make a person appear as if they are doing something they didn’t do or would not usually consent do on film.  

According to Amsterdam-based cyber security company, Deeptrace, 96% of deepfake videos on the internet are pornographic and most of the victims are women. And anyone can become a victim—celebrities Kristen Bell and Scarlett Johansson have both been victims of deep fake videos. 

Unfortunately, deepfakes are another way abusive partners exert power and control over their victims. Similar to revenge porn, where images or video that are actually of the victim, are distributed by a vengeful former intimate partner, deepfakes can be used in the same way without needing real footage of the victim. 

Abusive intimate partners may use deepfakes to humiliate the victim with friends or family. Explicit deepfakes have also been known to lead to endangering a person’s livelihood if they are shared widely. 

Deep fakes and other forms of image-based abuse are not always about revenge, though. My Image My Choice sums up the issue like this. 

It’s not all ‘revenge’ – people share images because they want sexual gratification, control, money, or because of voyeurism, extortion, misogyny, obsession. Some want increased social status and feel entitled to share these images for a laugh. Research on unsolicited images shows that some people believe it’s flattering or flirtatious.  

It makes us wonder, is the only answer to just hope we don’t become victims? One alternative solution is legislation.  

Just in the last two years, California passed two bills to address the issue of deepfakes, and one of them, AB 602, addresses the creation and distribution of sexually explicit deepfakes. Former laws in place did address the need for consent to distribute sexually explicit material, but deepfakes fell into a kind of loophole that needed to be closed. In 2022, the current administration launched a national task force focused on preventing online harassment and abuse with the intent to prevent and address technology-facilitated gender-based violence. 

Is there anything you can do to protect yourself from deepfakes? One recommendation out of the cyber security field is to use watermarks on the digital images you share online. This can make it more difficult for someone to make a realistic deep fake of you.  

How do you protect yourself from digital abuse? Share with the community in the comments section below. 

3 Ways Abusive Partners Use Tech to Outsource Abuse

Advances in technology have helped a lot, but what do we do when they’re used to harm?  

Digital abuse is more common than one might assume. One study found that 50% of people aged 14-24 have experienced digitally abusive behavior. When it comes to digital dating abuse, 1 in 4 say their significant other has checked text messages on their phone without permission, and 1 in 10 have had a significant other demand passwords to their online accounts. 

How do we protect ourselves from tech-enabled abuse and what should we look out for? Here are 3 ways abusive partners use technology to outsource abuse, and some tips to help you protect yourself. 

#1 Blocking Your Calls to Keep You Isolated 

The call-blocking feature on cell phones helps with filtering out spam callers but can be misused in the hands of the wrong person. 

If passwords have been shared or a phone is left unlocked, an abusive person can further isolate their victim by blocking calls and texts in seconds. Messages from friends or family members hoping to check in will go unseen and unknown to the victim and their contact. 

One of the tactics abusive partners use to further perpetuate abuse is isolating their victims. They may use abusive language or physical violence to deter the victim from connecting with family or friends who could help. Unfortunately, technology and modern cell phones make this tactic easier to accomplish. 

Safety tip: Periodically check to make sure any regular contacts have not been blocked.  

#2 Monitoring Your Communications  

Tracking a victim’s communications to maintain control is a common abuse tactic. Cell phones connected to shared online accounts may reveal phone numbers from outgoing calls and texts, even if they are deleted from the phone itself. Even full text messages can be stored in the Cloud or monitored by installed applications if the victim doesn’t notice them or they are hidden. 

Safety tips: Check if your any of your applications are hidden on your iPhone or Android. If your texts are being stored anywhere online, change your password so that only you have access. 

#3 Tracking Your Location 

Location tracking was developed for a host of helpful reasons. Tracking our phones helps us find them when they’re lost, and parents sometimes install location tracking applications on their children’s phones in the event of an emergency. 

Unfortunately, these kinds of applications have added to the list of options stalkers can use to monitor, locate, and harm their victims. 

Safety tip: Turn off location sharing in your phone’s settings. 

More on Staying Safe 

There’s a lot we can do to stay safe from digital abuse, but it takes community support to break cycles of abuse. If you are experiencing intimate partner abuse, you can call CORA’s 24/7 emergency hotline for support at 800.300.1080.  

Do you have other tips for how to stay safe from digital dating abuse? Share in the comment section below.