This is a post in our Behind the Screens series, which explores issues related to digital abuse.
Breakups are a difficult time for any couple, but they can be an especially difficult and potentially dangerous time for survivors of abusive relationships. Even if you’re able to safely leave the relationship, the abusive partner can still cause harm from afar in a variety of ways. Technology and social media create new spaces where abuse can take place. This is called digital abuse, and it is just as unacceptable as any other form of abuse.
Even if your ex-partner did not exhibit abusive behaviors during the relationship, there’s still a possibility that feelings of anger, hurt, sadness, loneliness, or loss of control could lead them to become abusive online. They could hack into your email accounts or send unwanted emails, post unwanted messages or pictures on social media sites, or create fake profiles to harass you and people you know. If your ex is harassing you online, here are some ways to handle it:
- Clearly tell your ex to stop harassing you, if you feel safe doing so. It’s important to let your ex know that what they are doing is abusive, preferably in a way that lets you keep a record of your request either by saving the text or email you send, or taking a screenshot of a message you send online. After you have told your ex to stop the harassment, do not respond to any future communications.
- Save everything. You might wish to delete the unwanted messages immediately, but try to keep a record of any communications your ex sends. Save emails and chat logs, take screenshots of status updates, direct messages, comments, pictures, or websites.
- Take steps to increase your online privacy. Check to make sure that the settings on any social media site you belong to are set to maximum privacy. Change your passwords, block or unfriend your ex, and don’t provide details of your social plans or whereabouts online – this includes avoiding “checking in” to places on Facebook or using apps like Foursquare.
- If your ex is harassing you via email, create a separate email account with an uncrackable password to use only with people you trust. This way, you can communicate with friends and family via the new email address and you won’t have to see your ex’s emails everyday. Again, save any abusive emails that your ex sends to you, but do not respond to them.
- Let people in your support system know that your ex is harassing you, if you feel comfortable doing so. Make them aware of your safety plan so they aren’t tagging you when they check in to places or otherwise mentioning your location online. It’s important not to go through this alone and for others to be aware of your ex’s behavior. If your ex tries to contact people you know, ask them not to respond and to keep records of those communications as well.
- If you believe your life is being threatened and/or if the harassment continues or escalates, you might consider taking legal action. All states have laws against cyberstalking, and it could help to speak with a legal advocate about protective orders or other legal measures. If you choose to pursue legal recourse, a record of your ex’s abusive communications would be useful.
If you are experiencing digital abuse from an ex or current partner, a good resource is the DIY Feminist Guide to Cybersecurity. WomensLaw.org also has information about cyberstalking and online safety.
You can always call the hotline anytime day or night at 1-800-799-7233 to speak with an advocate about options and support. Remember, everyone has the right to live free from abuse, online and off.