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What Is Digital Abuse and How Can It Be Prevented?

A shadowy human figure silhouetted by cascading green lines of computer code.Digital abuse is an especially insidious form of abuse that is becoming more common. It can be subtle and difficult to identify. Essentially, digital abuse is any form of stalking, harassment, intimidation, bullying, or exertion of control that happens in cyberspace. It may also occur alongside incidents of financial, sexual, or domestic abuse.

Abusers can technically use any internet-connected device to carry out digital abuse, including a phone, computer, or smart devices in your home. One prevalent form of digital abuse is cyberbullying, which is most common among teenagers and young adults. Over 50% of teens have experienced cyberbullying in some form.

Another group that can be vulnerable to digital abuse is seniors. Senior citizens may have problems navigating the digital world, and unscrupulous individuals may use that to their advantage. This is especially pertinent because teaching seniors to use smartphones can help improve their quality of life.

The best defense against digital abuse is to understand what it is and how to counteract it.

Examples of Digital Abuse

Here are some common examples that can illustrate the different forms of digital abuse that you may encounter.

  • The abuser may try to control who the victim interacts with online. They may demand access to social media accounts or steal passwords to check on these interactions.
  • The abuser may send the victim insulting or negative emails or messages. They may share these communications privately or in a public forum.
  • The abuser may keep tabs on the victim by tracking their social media activity, including the locations and people tagged on their posts.
  • The abuser may post humiliating or insulting things online about the victim. They may also publish unflattering or private pictures and videos.
  • The abuser may pressure the victim into sending explicit texts, photos, or videos or send this content to the victim without their consent.
  • The abuser may pressure the victim into giving them their account passwords or trick them into revealing them.
  • The abuser may continuously call or text the victim. They may also threaten the victim with punishment if the texts or calls are not immediately answered.
  • The abuser may force the victim to let them look through their phone (or do it secretly), checking up on the victim’s texts, pictures, and records.
  • The abuser may keep tabs on the victim’s location using spyware or GPS on their phone or vehicle.
  • The abuser may track the victim’s movements using smart home technology, such as security cameras and smart speakers. They may also gain control of these smart devices to intimidate the victim.
  • The abuser may impersonate the victim online by creating fake profiles under their name to make embarrassing posts. They may also use the victim’s phone to communicate with others pretending to be the victim.

Signs of Digital Abuse

One of the reasons why digital abuse is so damaging is that it can be hard to detect. Often, what seems like a harmless request can turn out to be an attempt to manipulate and control someone.

Knowing what signs to look out for can help you recognize digital abuse before it becomes a problem.

Here are some common signs of digital abuse:

  • Someone sends you threatening or insulting texts, publishes humiliating things about you, or tags you in hurtful posts.
  • Someone demands to know your account passwords or gains access to your account.
  • You find spyware on your phone.
  • You notice accounts on social media with your name and images that you did not create.
  • You find explicit or embarrassing photos of yourself online that you did not post.
  • Someone sends you many messages or calls you multiple times in a row in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or even afraid.
  • Someone asks for financial information, passwords, or private data online.

Who Is At Risk of Digital Abuse?

Anyone can experience digital abuse, but some groups are more vulnerable than others because of the way they use the internet and connected devices.

Teenagers and Young Adults

According to the Urban Institute, 25% of teens reported experiencing digital abuse, yet only 9% sought help, and even then, rarely did they seek it from their parents or teachers. Teenagers in relationships are especially vulnerable. Digital abuse often happens alongside verbal, physical, and sexual abuse.

Children

Children can be particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying. Not only may they find it challenging to navigate cyberspace, but they are in their formative years. According to Bullying Statistics, 30% of students are either victims of bullying or bullies themselves.

People in Managed Care Environments

People being cared for in assisted living facilities or nursing homes or those receiving home care can be vulnerable to digital abuse. In some instances, a caretaker may send embarrassing images or texts to others. They may also post this type of content on social media without the victim’s consent. In these cases, this can be a form of ageism, with the abuser using images or stories to ridicule a senior person online because of their age-related health or cognitive issues.

Sometimes the caretaker may manipulate the victim into disclosing personal information, such as passwords to financial accounts. Others may try to befriend the victim online to steal information, or they may offer assistance opening accounts online to gain access at a later time.

Consequences of Digital Abuse

Digital abuse can lead to financial loss, emotional distress, physical injury, and even suicide.

In many instances, digital abuse can lead to other forms of abuse. For example, a child or senior individual may get coerced into giving out their personal information online, which can lead to identity theft.

A person in a nursing home facility may be subjected to neglect or some other form of senior abuse if they refuse to give in to the demands of an abuser or complain to management about digital abuse. In these cases, you may be able to spot the physical signs of senior abuse before becoming aware of the underlying digital abuse; however, seniors dealing with dementia or Alzheimer’s may not realize that they are being controlled or taken advantage of through digital means. It is important that they have a caregiver or family member they can trust monitoring online activity to detect potential abuse.

Digital abusers may try to get an emotional response from their victims. Because of this dynamic, the problems can induce psychological issues in the victim, such as anxiety or depression.

Digital Abuse Prevention and Intervention

Being able to identify digital abuse is a crucial first step. The next step is to cut off the abuser so that they have no access to you or your accounts.

You can also take steps to prevent you or your loved ones from being abused in the first place.

  • Disable geolocation in apps, and do not install any apps that require permission to have administrative access to your phone.
  • Change all your PINs and passwords immediately to reduce the risk of unauthorized access. Use a password manager going forward, and do not give the primary login details to anyone.
  • Use one email account for communicating with friends and a different one for handling finances.
  • Disable the location feature when posting online. Avoid location tagging when posting on social media because this makes it easier for people to know where you are.
  • Share the identity of your abuser with your friends, family, and colleagues. Then, ask them not to share any information with the abuser.
  • Seek help from the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You may also confide in a trusted family member or friend and seek their guidance in dealing with the problem.
  • Seek psychological help if you feel that the abuse has had an effect on your mentally. If a loved one suffered the abuse, encourage them to seek help if needed.