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How teens perceive cyberdating aggression on WhatsApp: Common, but not serious

A Spanish study has found that youngsters do not rank actions such as controlling behavior as aggressive, even though they happen often in private and group chats

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Girls viewed some categories of cyber aggression as more serious than boys.Luis Sevillano Arribas

“In the end, I will have to stay home alone because of you.” “Why haven’t you answered me?” “Do you know where she/he is? I’ve been writing to him/her all afternoon and he/she doesn’t me.” “Send it [a photo with sexual content] to me. It does not cost you a thing.” “It seems that you no longer love me.” These are phrases that teenagers say are common in both private and group WhatsApp conversations. That’s according to a new study by Virginia Sánchez-Jiménez, María Luisa Rodríguez de Arriba and Noelia Muñoz Fernández, from Spain’s Universityof Seville and University of Loyola.

In their investigation, the researchers analyzed whether teenagers perceive such phrases as aggression and, if so, to what degree. According to the findings, published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, while all teens consider cyberdating aggression to be present in most adolescent romantic relationships, girls reported that it “was more common and more severe than boys.”

The research is based on a worrying premise: technology is being used for coercion and sexual aggression, and this is happening in a large number of adolescent relationships. To assess how teenagers perceive this violence, the participants – 262 students between the ages of 12 and 18 – were presented with several fictional WhatsApp conversations and asked to assess their degree of aggression, and whether this changed if it took place in a private chat or in a group conversation.

Researcher Janine Zweig, from the Justice Policy Center in Washington, defines cyberdating aggression as “the use of new technologies to harm and harass a partner.” This is a practice that scientist Phyllis Holditch Niolon, of the Violence Prevention Division of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, does not hesitate to call “a public health problem.”

Cyberdating aggression is divided into three different categories: verbal/emotional to insult, harass or threaten; controlling online behavior and sexual aggression, which includes the interchange of undesired sexual material. The Spanish study analyzed how teens perceived each of these areas, controlling for gender and sexual orientation.

Verbal aggression

Both boys and girls responded that they had “often” experienced all three categories of aggression in public and private conversations – a response just one point below “always.”

The perception of aggression varied according to the category of violence and whether it occurred in public or in private. For example, both boys and girls considered insulting conversations “slightly aggressive” if they took place in a private conversation, but “aggressive” if they happened in a WhatsApp group. None of the control scenarios was rated as “very serious,” the highest on the scale, either in public or private conversations.

Control and surveillance

The authors of the study say “online control seems to be more acceptable than other forms of cyber aggression, such as sexual aggression and face-to-face aggression.” They explain: “Some adolescents consider certain acts of online control, such as sharing passwords or checking the list of their partner’s social network contacts, to be acceptable under certain circumstances and even as proof of mutual trust and care for their partner. In summary, although online control may be irritating and increase conflict within the relationship, some adolescents perceive this form of aggression as less severe than other forms of dating aggression, even justifying it in some circumstances.”

“Controlling one’s partner,” Sánchez-Jiménez explains, “is behavior that is perceived as less serious. Knowing where he/she is, why and that he/she answers quickly is more normalized in a teenage couple. It is even seen as positive, as proof of love: ‘I’m calling you and insisting so much in the messages because I’m worried about you and, therefore, you have to answer.’ The message the responder hears is: ‘You are the priority and I have to answer quickly’.”

Sexual aggression

Where perceptions vary most between boys and girls is in scenarios of cyber sexual aggression, understood as the unwanted exchange of sexual images and texts. While boys do not consider it “very aggressive” either in private or in group conversations, girls identify such actions as more severe, although they were not given the highest rating in the study. In the example of a private conversation, the participants were presented with a scenario in which the aggressor resorted to emotional blackmail to obtain a photo with sexual content of the partner after the insistent refusal of the victim to send it. For public sexual aggression, the aggressor nonconsensually shares a private photo of his partner with a group of friends.

The study highlights that the consequences of this violence are also different. “Adolescent girls have a higher risk of associated psychological disorders” and “experience it more negatively than boys.” Meanwhile, according to the study, although boys consider sending images to be “inappropriate behavior,” they describe it as a fairly common practice.

Social media networks have not created new forms of aggression, but they have provided new tools and amplified the effects. In this regard, Sánchez-Jiménez explains: “The internet facilitates and amplifies certain types of aggression, which can move from the private to the public sphere very quickly. Psychological aggression also has particular characteristics, such as disinhibition. For the aggressor, it is more difficult to see the consequences on the other person, he/she does not see the direct impact on the victim and this minimizes empathy. In addition, aggression can be present 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It is very difficult to escape aggression on the web, especially if it is public. Even if it happens once, it is repeated as many times as it is shared, and so is the victimization.”

According to the research, the way to prevent such aggression is via intervention from the level of families to schools. “The earlier, the better,” she warns. “Having a partner is something we have to learn and we are seeing that, if we teach those, who have more difficulties in their romantic lives and at an evolutionary moment in which we experience love for the first time, to manage expression and desire, involvement in violent behavior is greatly reduced.”

Access to personal information, passwords and networks can also be limited. But Sánchez-Jiménez warns: “Girls need to understand what risky behavior can be and what it means to share personal and private information, but it should be made clear that the responsibility for the aggression lies with the aggressor. It should not be blamed on the victim. We cannot force the victim to be preventive in the face of a circumstance that should not happen. We cannot lose sight of the fact that the aggressor is always responsible.”

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