Are Warning Signs of Abuse Lurking in Your Texts?

Digital technology has changed communication, for better and for worse.

The “worse” is that texting and social media have created new opportunities for abuse. But for the better, it seems we may be able to use that same technology to recognize warning signs of danger.

Our perception of abuse remains outdated. Bruises and cuts are easy to see. Psychological abuse is harder to detect, and even harder if it’s digital. Nobody is yelling in your face but texted words can still bully, intimidate and hurt. Abusers can control your behavior by dictating who you can and can’t text, isolating you from your social circle.

Because we now live significant chunks of our lives online, we must change our understanding of abusive behaviors.

The domestic abuse education organization One Love is crowdsourcing digital abuse prevention. Their #ThatsNotLove campaign teaches young people to recognize warning signs of abuse on social media and texting.

One Love engagement director Liz Cowley says that with social media, “we’re not presenting the full picture of our lives. That makes it easy to hide behind cute Instagram pictures and Facebook posts. But often, there’s a bigger picture hiding behind the selfie.

What about obsessive behavior like stalking on social media. Or telling someone what they can and can’t post on social media.

These behaviors are hard to spot and that is why, say Cowley, it’s important to follow up in real life with someone about their relationships.

“How does this person make you feel?” she says.

One Love’s “Love Labrynth” video covers controlling behavior like a partner controlling who you text with or how often. One Love says it’s important to pay attention to abusive isolation of this nature.

Still, it’s often difficult to recognize these behaviors. No one wants to be in an abusive relationship. But if anybody is going to be an expert at detecting abusive behavior, it should be the person being abused.

The Crushh app helps boost your expertise. It reads your texts and tells you how the person really feels about you, based on text length, frequency, and content. It was originally designed to detect levels of romantic interest. But Crushh creator Es Lee says it can be used to detect volatile behaviors as well.

“In an abusive relationship,” he says, “you’ll see this volatility.” One day you’ll receive streams of “I love you” and “you’re so beautiful” texts. Then they’ll go silent for days or text more negative things like what One Love describes — accusatory and degrading texts. That erratic behavior is a hallmark of abuse.

Crushh reads those texts and creates a chart tracking your relationship over time. It will show you how unsteady your relationship is, and exactly when and how the abusive behavior occurs.

“The idea is that we have all this data on your relationship and you can become an expert at reading your chart,” says Lee.

That component is critical. Digital technology presents new ways for abuse to manifest but it also gives us the tools to retake our autonomy.