Culture, Social Media

It's time to admit that ‘boyfriend phone hacks’ are cyber abuse

Content by VICE

10/23/2021 4:23:00 AM

Checking your partner’s messages or tracking their calls are emotionally harmful behaviours, though TikTok might have you believe otherwise.

Content by VICE

, a journal by Urban Institute, one in four teens are abused or harassed online or through texts by their partners.24-year-old Hannah* has been a victim of cyber stalking from both her ex-boyfriend and her stepdad. The former regularlytracked her location on her phone

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, while her stepdad installed mirroring technology on her laptop so he could watch her activity in real time. “This happened when I was 16, and I’m still living with daily mental health problems every single day. I constantly feel like I’m being watched. I have completely irrational, paranoid thoughts that someone is in the house or tracking me. Cyber abuse was hands-down the hardest thing I ever had to get over,” she says.

Domestic abuse specialistEvie Muirexplains that tech is manipulated by abusers who use it as a tool of abuse to maintain power and control. “Naming this kind of behaviour a ‘hack’ or a ‘trend’ minimises and normalises the seriousness of acts, which are abusive and which may even be criminal.”

The behaviours displayed in these TikTok videos sit within multiple forms of abuse – stalking and harassment, coercive control, and emotional abuse to name a few. “Abusive behaviours rarely happen in isolation and they often follow a pattern of escalation. What people may think is a seemingly ‘harmless’ checking of a person’s messages whilst they’re in the shower, can escalate to the installation of tracking devices on a person’s phone, or apps which allow you to listen to their calls,” says Muir.

“Whether or not distrust in a partner is justified or imagined, relationship difficulties can’t be tackled with invasions of privacy.”Since the victim is often unaware of the tech abuse they are being subject to, this form of hacking is thought of as ultimately benign, something par for the course in committed relationships. According to Muir it’s partly an issue of the public perception of abuse. Abuse depicted in the media is largely outdated. It still portrays the abuse as largely physical, [so we rarely see] accurate depictions of the reality of online abuse. If young people can’t see themselves in the images of abuse that are portrayed in the media, it’s difficult for them to identify their own abusive experiences.” Evie warns abusers can use this perception to their advantage, often saying “It’s not abuse, I never hit you” to their victims.

According to TikTok’s Community Guidelines, these videos don’t violate their policies. They have a robust zero tolerance policy against bullying and harassment and although they stress “this applies to everyone”, it does unfortunately seem to only cover the bullying and harassment of other TikTok users, not sole users bullying their IRL partners and bragging about it. i-D reached out to TikTok for comment on this issue, but they declined to give one.

Tech abuse can have a severe psychological impact on victims. It can take years to recover from, and some may never really move on. Muir says that cyber abuse “embeds deep distrust, paranoia, self-doubt, submissiveness and normalises these things as trauma-responses in future relationships”.  Whether or not distrust in a partner is justified or imagined, relationship difficulties can’t be tackled with invasions of privacy. As Muir says, if you partake in this trend or feel anything other than disgust when you see it, “It’s your responsibility to seek professional support, access therapy, address your control issues, and re-evaluate your relationship with tech.”

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