February--a month that bears an enduring association with all the sugar and spice of romantic love at its sweetest--has also been designated Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. Dating violence among youth certainly deserves focus and concern: according to statistics at loveisrespect.org, one out of every three young people experiences dating violence in one form or another. That may be a bitter pill to find mixed in with our Valentine’s chocolates, but getting honest about the harmful, destructive behaviors that can show up in some relationships need not undermine our celebration of healthy ones. Our friends and colleagues at youth-oriented organizations like Break the Cycle, One Love and Love Is Respect are spearheading events all this month that fight the shame and entrapment of abuse by uplifting the power, wisdom and capacity for transformative love that young people already possess.
Inevitably, if relationships are full of the dual potential for good or for harm, so are the tools we use to connect with one another, the means by which we develop and maintain relationships. When it comes to social media, the double-edged sword of abuse and empowerment is in full effect, not just exemplified but magnified. Those of us working in victims rights see staggering examples of social media being weaponized into a tool of abuse. This could look like launching a campaign of cyberbullying, turning an online community against a target, or publicizing private or stolen images of a sexual nature. An abuser may break into someone’s account to further their efforts to shame, isolate and terrorize them. And, with media and technology unavoidable and ever-present in our lives, abusers can exploit countless opportunities to monitor, harass, stalk and control. Young people, belonging to a generation that is both more connected to technology than any other and better at taking advantage of its capabilities, are particularly vulnerable.
Along with the vulnerabilities inherent in a technology-saturated world, though, this degree of connectedness is also a powerful tool in fighting abuse. Recent months and years have seen Twitter hashtags on topics of abuse and assault prompt largely spontaneous outpourings of storytelling, education, information-sharing and support-building--see #WhyIStayed, #WhyILeft, #MaybeHeDoesntHitYou and #NotOkay for some examples of how much heavy lifting can be done in a few words. These stories and conversations have the power to give clarity, nuance and the weight of lived experience to our understanding of abuse dynamics; taken collectively they illustrate the pervasiveness and complexity of relationship violence. And they are taking place on platforms that young people are especially equipped to use, both as participants and as recipients.
Other blogs, websites and messaging platforms are finding creative ways to join the conversation (and bring more people into the conversation). And this constant connectedness works against abuse in some important ways--not only does it make it easier than ever to access information and self-educate, but it is creates opportunities for quick access to communities and support, undermining the isolation so central to abusive control. If social media has opened up more avenues for abusers to get in, it is also opening up more paths for survivors to get out.
Take some time this month to check out the newest generation of efforts against dating violence. If it’s tough to think about the high proportion of teens affected by abusive relationships, it’s pretty inspiring to see what they are doing about it.