700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Digital Stalking in Relationships: How Adults Can Support Teens

Aug 24, 2021
teen wearing headphone and looking at a phone in his hands.

Technology is a big part of many teens’ lives, and the use of social media increased during the pandemic. Compared with 2019, the average time US teens spent on social media apps almost doubled in 2020, across all major platforms. Teens find that their “real” and digital lives are merged, including romantic relationships.

Teens in online relationships are often more isolated from friends and family and may be at a greater risk for abusive behaviors. LoveisRespect, the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s resource for teens, reported an increase in calls and website traffic since the start of the pandemic. Overall, the Hotline saw a 9% increase in reports of stalking in 2020, including digital stalking.

Digital dating abuse is defined as the use of technology and social media to bully, harass, stalk or intimidate a current/former partner.

These behaviors can include:

  • Unwanted or excessive texting
  • Demands for passwords or access to social media accounts
  • Harassment through social media messages
  • Pressure to send or receive unwanted sexual photos or messages

Digital Stalking Trends

Stalking and harassment are often normalized in teen relationships. According to research from the Boston University School of Public Health, up to 48% of teens who have been in a relationship have been stalked or harassed by a partner and 42% have stalked or harassed a partner. Stalking can have serious consequences for teens, but social media content related to digital stalking often minimizes the risks.

TikTok, a social media app that features short videos, had a 116% increase in time spent by teens from 2019 to 2020. TikTok has been an important source of connection and coping for teens in the pandemic, as it provides an outlet for shared experiences and fears. It’s also a space for content that can reinforce stalking behaviors in relationships.

Common trends of teen digital stalking found in TikTok videos:

  • “Zillow surfing,” which is scrolling through homes on the real estate website. Teens may look at the home of their romantic partner or crush, and even locate a bedroom or bathroom without ever entering the home.
  • Using the Find My… app to track partner locations through an iPhone or AirTag.
  • Tracking locations on the Snap Map feature within Snapchat.
  • Checking the real time activity status in Instagram Direct Messages. Teens may check to see if their partner is “Active Now,” sometimes after saying goodbye through other communication.
  • Using Google to find out information about a partner, their ex-partner(s), or family.

Tips for Supporting Healthy Digital Communication

Teens often post TikTok videos about stalking because they don’t recognize the behavior as abusive or they are seeking validation for behavior that they know isn’t okay. Only 9% of teens who experience digital dating abuse seek help and rarely from parents or teachers. It is important for adults to start the conversation about healthy digital communication.

  • Approach teens with curiosity rather than judgment. Find a time to talk when you’re relaxed and open to listening to your teen.
  • Create a family media agreement together. Allow young people to describe what they hope to see, do and feel when they are online. Be a guide in this process by pausing to make sure you understand what your teen is communicating.
  • Make safety the focus of your conversation. If you hear something unsafe in the conversation, say, “What I’m hearing makes me concerned for your safety. What could safety look like on this app?”
  • Model healthy digital boundaries. It can be confusing if adults use tracking devices and then say it’s out of love. Overwhelmingly, teens express a need for open conversation with trusted adults instead of parental control apps.
  • Connect your teen with other safe, healthy adults. It can be helpful for teens to hear messages about healthy relationships from a family friend or relative. You can discuss your values with this person before they talk to your teen.

Resources for Adults

ThatsNotCool.com has an adult allies section with research, interactive videos and support information to prevent digital dating abuse.

CommonSenseMedia.org offers articles and guidance for adults who want to keep their families safe and productive online, including a Family Toolkit, developed in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Digital well-being and screen time resources can be used on Android and iPhone devices. These tools can help provide digital balance for teens.

The Center for Family Safety and Healing offers free training and resources to help adults set age-appropriate boundaries for teen technology use, as well as to empower teens to use technology as a tool for prevention.

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Caitlin Tully
Caitlin Tully
The Center for Family Safety and Healing

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.