Mobile phones and social networks are part of everyday life for boys and girls. Recent data from the National Institute of Statistics indicate this: almost 100% of those under 16 years of age use the Internet on a daily basis and more than 95% have a mobile phone.
The digital context has become a key scenario in which boys and girls relate to their partners. The use of these devices has positive effects: it allows them to feel connected and share moments of leisure and intimacy. However, international and national studies also confirm that technologies are used to coerce and assault partners .
Control and intrusive behaviors are the most frequent aggressions in adolescent couples . Boys and girls affirm that they can become very insistent with their partners, harassing them with a large number of calls, messages or monitoring what they do and with whom on social networks.
Verbal aggression, spreading rumors and sexual aggression (pressuring the partner to send intimate images or forwarding these to third parties) are also present, although less frequently.
What is perceived as aggression?
Do the young recipients of this type of behavior on the Internet consider that they are being attacked? Researchers from the University of Seville and the Loyola Andalucía University have tried to answer this question. To do this, we create fictitious WhatsApp conversations that we then show to teenagers.
These conversations reflected the most frequent forms of aggression between couples: monitoring of online activity, verbal aggression and sexual harassment. Furthermore, some of these situations occurred in a private chat, while others occurred in WhatsApp groups. After viewing the conversations, we asked them their opinion about them.
The study has shown that adolescents do not always perceive aggression on the Internet as such. Their interpretation depends on the type of behavior, the context in which they occur (in private or in a group) and other factors such as gender and their tendency to justify violence.
When control becomes normal
Of the types of internet violence analyzed, control behaviors are rated as less serious than verbal and sexual aggression. This indicates that control is more normalized in the adolescent population than other aggressions.
A possible explanation is found in the meaning that they attribute to these behaviors, which are valued by many young people as signs of care and concern for the relationship , ideas closely linked to the myths of romantic love .
The public plane of aggression
The audience plays a key role in adolescents’ assessment of online aggression, since it amplifies the impact of the victimization experience .
Public aggressions are valued as more serious than private ones, although they also confess that they occur less frequently. There is a greater acceptance of insults and control of the partner when they occur in private, while if they happen in front of other people they are considered a warning sign.
However, public and private sexual assaults are perceived as equally serious, which indicates that any sexual assault is for them a “betrayal” of intimacy and the will to decide on their own sexuality.
Boys and girls interpret differently
The girls are more sensitive and are more aware of the aggressions that occur around them, especially the public ones. This result is expected if we take into account that in them the consequences are greater: they feel more upset and show more physical and psychological problems than boys .
The moral disconnection: key factor
A final factor directly related to the assessment that boys and girls make of aggression on the Internet is moral disconnection. This construct, defined by Albert Bandura in his Theory of Moral Action, describes the cognitive mechanisms we use to justify violence. They are processes that reduce the emotional impact of the aggression and favor distancing with the victims.
Blaming them for what happens to them, shifting the responsibility for the aggression to other people or minimizing the consequences of violence are some of the mechanisms of moral disconnection that boys and girls use to justify phenomena such as bullying or cyberbullying . In this study we have verified this same relationship: those who use moral disconnection more attribute less seriousness to aggression, and perpetuate violence in these first relationships.
The normalization of aggression puts boys and girls at risk: it makes it difficult for them to leave a violent relationship and it anesthetizes those who witness the aggression. The risk increases in boys, for control in the private sphere of the relationship, and among those who more justify violence. Understanding these factors is essential to design intervention proposals that promote healthy romantic relationships.
Author Bios: Virginia Sanchez Jimenez is University Professor. Department of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology at the University of Seville, Maria Luisa Rodriguez de Arriba is a PhD researcher. Department of Evolutionary and Educational Psychology also at the University of Seville and Noelia Munoz-Fernandez is a Hired Ph.D. Professor in the Department of Psychology of the Universidad Loyola Andalucía at Seville, Universidad Loyola Andalucía