Cyber Abuse


When we pause to think about all the many affordances our internet infrastructure and technologically connected world lends us, it’s easy to recognize at least a handful of ways our lives have been made easier. Apps like Venmo and CashApp allow us the convenience of immediately paying a friend back who just paid for our coffee, and location sharing gives us the ability to instantly know whether the Uber your little sister got into took her straight home.

So many wonderful advantages have come from our technologically-infiltrated world, yet, for those with poor intentions, it provides an easy and sometimes difficult to trace avenue for bullying, abuse, and even crime. The 2022 Netflix docuseries “The Most Hated Man on the Internet,” for example, outlines the story of Hunter Moore who created a popular website centered solely on posting stolen nude photos of unsuspecting people and connecting the pictures to their social media sites and even home addresses. Luckily, the story of Hunter Moore has a relatively happy ending for his victims with the site being taken down and jail time for Moore, but some victims of these kinds of cybercrimes on a smaller scale never receive such justice.

And what about those whose intentions are not purely criminal, but still perpetrate behavior that inflicts emotional, psychological, and/or relational harm on the receiver? That is a much stickier situation and is often the case for dating partners who mutually engage in cyber dating abuse, or the use of communication technologies to threaten, harass, or control one’s romantic partner (David-Ferdon & Hertz, 2007). At first glance, some cyber dating abuse behaviors may be hard to identify because they can also be healthy relational behaviors when used appropriately; for example, checking a partner’s location via a GPS tracking app to ensure they got home safely might be seen as a thoughtful, caring behavior, but constantly monitoring a partner’s whereabouts out of jealousy or unwarranted suspicion is likely experienced as controlling. Other cyber dating abuse behaviors are more obvious, like using a partner’s social network passwords without permission, sending threatening texts to a partner, and sharing private pictures or videos that include nudity. Unfortunately, rates of this type of partner violence are high both in adolescent populations (56%; Cava, Buelga, Carrascosa, & Ortega-Barón, 2020) and young adults (92%; Bennett, Guran, Ramos, & Margolin, 2011) in empirical samples, and with a reported 95% of teens having access to a smartphone (Pew Research Center, 2022) and 46% saying they use the internet almost constantly, clinicians need to be well prepared to handle cyber dating abuse concerns in the therapy room.

So, what’s the best way for clinicians to address cyber dating abuse with clients? It starts with systemic and thorough assessment. One method for which those in the field have advocated for cyber dating abuse assessment is the Couple and Family Technology Framework (Hertlein, 2012). This framework outlines the necessity of examining how technology affects the structure and process of relationships and offers seven characteristics of technology that affect changes to relationships: They include accessibility, affordability, how one can be anonymous through using technology, and how technology can approximate real world situations. The other characteristics include that technology use is very acceptable in relationships, interpretation through technology can involve ambiguity, and can be used to accommodate wishes that may otherwise be unrealistic in real life. These seven characteristics point to issues of structure (roles, rules, and boundaries) as well as processes (the way relationships are initiated, maintained, and terminated) that should be examined in terms of how technology intersects with the relational dynamics of the couple (Hertlein, 2012; Hertlein & Twist, 2019).

It is also extremely important for MFTs to maintain a systemic lens while assessing for cyber dating abuse, as the etiology of partner violence and aggression in a relationship is multifaceted (Whiting, Merchant, Bradford, & Smith, 2020). Considering the context each person brings to how, when, and why technology is used to interact with their partner is part of collecting information about the way the system functions that is necessary for making an effective treatment plan. For example, hearing that a client stole his partner’s phone and sent messages to her contacts without her knowledge may sound concerning at first take. With the added context that the messages were to her friends to coordinate a surprise birthday party for her, perhaps the concern lessens. Context is important.

Unfortunately, empirically validated programs designed to curb cyber dating abuse are virtually non-existent (no pun intended). In a systematic review of cyber dating abuse prevention programs conducted in 2020, the authors found only four studies that reported on three prevention programs with an explicit objective to lower cyber dating violence (Galende, Ozamiz-Etxebarria, Jaureguizar, & Redondo, 2020). All three programs were successful in changing participants’ beliefs and attitudes about cyber dating abuse by having participants do activities such as examine myths of romantic love, sexist attitudes, and cognitions related to the possibility of changing people and situations (Carrascosa, Cava Caballero, Buelga Vásquez, & Jesus 2019; Sánchez-Jiménez, Muñoz-Fernández, Ortega-Rivera, 2018; Muñoz-Fernández, Ortega-Rivera, Nocentini, Menesini, & Sánchez-Jiménez, 2019; Fernández-González, Calvete, & Sánchez-Álvarez, 2011). However, these studies did not measure how the programs impacted actual cyber dating abuse-related behaviors.

Research on peer-to-peer (i.e., with a nonromantic partner) cyberbullying is much more established and lends a bit more information about effective interventions that have potential to be translated to the abuse occurring between partners online. Most cyberbullying interventions are effective in coping with cyberbullying regardless of the method, tool, or theory in which the programs are based (Özgür, 2020), and one meta-analysis suggested that the average cyberbullying program would have a 76% and 73% probability of reducing cyberbullying perpetration and victimization, respectively (Polanin et al., 2022). So, if all the programs are effective, which common elements are most important for clinicians to keep in mind when working with clients struggling with cyber dating abuse?

The good news for MFTs is that there is some evidence to suggest that interventions targeting emotion regulation, communication skills, empathy, and coping strategies can improve cyber abuse (Lancaster, 2018). Teaching these skills is a practice in which most MFTs are generally well versed and have spent a great deal of time in dialogue about, but perhaps in different content areas. In addition, however, clinicians should be prepared to talk about digital citizenship and specific cyber dating abuse behaviors with individuals, couples, and families. Because technology has become ubiquitous in our lives, a sort of homeostasis is likely to set in within family systems that could allow for some harmful technology use to seem normal. As MFTs, we have an opportunity to encourage clients to dig deeper in asking themselves why their behavior over technology looks a certain way (e.g., why is it so important to me that my partner has a new female follower on Instagram?) as well as provide technology-based strategies that have potential to better the relationship (e.g., pausing to text coherent thoughts and emotions to partner when conflict gets too escalated in-person).

In sum, cyber dating abuse is a pervasive problem that clinicians should become accustomed to assessing and intervening. By utilizing thorough assessment strategies, teaching “traditional” therapy skills like emotion regulation, and by talking with couples specifically about patterns they exhibit via technology, we have the ability to help couples recognize other ways of interacting with one another that communicates trust, acceptance, and respect.

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Research on peer-to-peer cyberbullying is much more established and lends a bit more information about effective interventions that have potential to be translated to the abuse occurring between partners online.

Morgan Lancaster Strickland, PhD, is an AAMFT Professional Member holding the Approved Supervisor designation and is an assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and the associate program director for the MFT program, Converse University, Spartanburg, SC. She provides individual, couple, and family therapy and has worked in both traditional therapeutic settings and integrated healthcare settings. Her research focuses on family violence and how survivors can remain resilient to adverse outcomes. She is interested in how violence is perpetuated through communication technologies and how MFTs and other mental health professionals can better assess and intervene in this pervasive problem. Her dissertation on cyber dating abuse won the 2020 AAMFT Foundation Graduate Student Research Award.


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Carrascosa, L., Cava Caballero, M. J., Buelga Vásquez, S., Jesus ,S. (2019). Reduction of sexist attitudes, romantic myths, and aggressive behaviors in adolescents: Efficacy of the DARSI program. Psicothema; 31(2), 121–127. DOI: 10.7334/psicothema2018.245

Cava, M. J., Buelga, S., Carrascosa, L., & Ortega-Barón, J. (2020). Relations among romantic myths, offline dating violence victimization and cyber dating violence victimization in adolescents. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(5), 1551. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17051551

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Hertlein, K. M. (2012). Digital dwelling: Technology in couple and family relationships. Family Relations, 61(3), 374-387. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00702.x

Hertlein, K. M., & Twist, M. L. C. (2019). The internet family. Routledge.

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Muñoz-Fernández, N., Ortega-Rivera, J., Nocentini, A., Menesini, E., & Sánchez-Jiménez, V. (2019). The efficacy of the “dat-e adolescence” prevention program in the reduction of dating violence and bullying. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(3), 408.

Özgür, H. (2020). A systematic review on cyberbullying interventions and preventions. Shanlax International Journal of Education, 9(1), 11-26. DOI: https://doi.org/10.34293/education.v9i1.3373

Pew Research Center. (2022). Teens, social media and technology. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/

Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., Grotpeter, J. K., Ingram, K., Michaelson, L., Spinney, E., Valido, A., Sheikh, A. E., Torgal, C., & Robinson, L. (2022). A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventions to decrease cyberbullying perpetration and victimization. Prevention Science, 23(3), 439-454. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11121-021-01259-y

Sánchez-Jiménez V., Muñoz-Fernández, N., & Ortega-Rivera, J. (2018). Efficacy evaluation of ”dat-e adolescence”: A dating violence prevention program in Spain. PLoS One,13(10), e0205802.

Whiting, J. B., Merchant, L. V., Bradford, A. B., & Smith, D. (2020). The ecology of family violence: Treating cultural contexts and relationship processes. In K. Wampler & A. Blow (Eds.), Handbook of systemic therapy. Springer.

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