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The internet is giving abusive partners a whole new set of tools

A new report is warning health professionals to be on the lookout for signs of domestic violence. That much isn’t new — doctors, nurses, teachers and therapists have long been on the frontline against abuse — but what is new is the location: online. There’s been a sharp rise in digital domestic and dating violence, according to a report published in NASN School Nurse.

Wait, what is digital domestic or dating violence? It doesn’t leave the trademark bruises that we typically think of on an abused woman, but it can be every bit as damaging, researchers say. Abusers are using social media to control, manipulate and isolate their victims — and the very public aspect adds an additional layer of shame and humiliation.

More: If you think abusers deserve to be abused, you’re part of the problem

Some ways this may manifest is a partner demanding that you share pin codes and passwords to phones and apps, excessively contacting you or stalking you on social media, demanding that you send a picture of where you are or whom you are with to “prove” that you are telling the truth or posting private things like nude pictures on social media in an effort to humiliate you says Jeff Temple, co-author of the paper and the University of Texas Medical Branch associate professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology.

What’s more, digital forms of partner abuse often go hand-in-hand with more physical methods, and so a loved one’s social media accounts may be one of the first indications to family and friends that something dangerous is happening in their romantic relationship.

“Online and offline behaviors are becoming increasingly blurred,” Temple says. “Digital dating abuse may be a warning sign of traditional abuse.”

This is especially true if the abuser has isolated the victim in real life, making social media an incredibly important tool for recognizing abuse and hopefully helping the victim. But it’s a tricky situation. On one hand, social media may give you an opening to reach out to someone you can’t talk to in real life. But on the other hand, their abuser may be monitoring their accounts and/or reading all of their messages and comments.

More: 12 women transform from victim to artist in ‘How I Got Over’

One group that’s particularly at risk? Teens. Over a quarter of teens surveyed said they had been the victim of digital abuse. “Because of their inexperience with romantic relationships, teens might not know how to appropriately cope with feelings of uncertainty about their relationship and may resort to monitoring as a coping mechanism,” he adds.

So what can you do? If you recognize any of these signs of digital domestic abuse in your own relationship, know that they’re not OK. Temple says many victims want to brush off these aggressive online behaviors as “annoying” or minimize them because they’re “just online.” But they can cause serious psychological harm and lead to physical harm, so it’s important to pay attention to them. If you notice someone you love being digitally abused, gently let them know this behavior is abusive. Start by making sure they know you’re open to talking and let them know they can come to you if they need help.

For more information on abuse or to get help contact RAINN or call 1-800-656-HOPE.

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