Using Technology to Prevent Dating Violence and Improve College Safety

(December 2016) As many as one in every five teenagers and college students will experience some type of violence in intimate relationships or be the victim of stalking. Campuses across the United States are struggling with ways to support students and to stem potential abuse.

At a recent symposium at Johns Hopkins University, researchers and policy advocates described how technology can be both a tool to perpetrate and to prevent sexual violence. They explored research on the prevalence of sexual violence on college campuses and examined evidence on technology-based prevention strategies, including smartphone apps to help avert dating violence and connect victims with assistance. The symposium was titled “Dating Violence and Safety on College Campuses: Using Technology to Change the Climate.”

Presenters at the Oct. 6, 2016 event included:

  • Michele Decker, associate professor, Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and co-chair of the university’s Sexual Violence Advisory Committee (slides: PDF).
  • Nancy Glass, professor, Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, and associate director of the university’s Center for Global Health (slides: PDF). 
  • Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence, formerly the Family Violence Prevention Fund.

Michele Decker emphasized that intimate partner violence is not concentrated within marriage as thought in the past but “affects youth, at times disproportionately.” She discussed the prevalence of sexual and dating violence, reporting findings from the Centers for Disease Control’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. For more than two-thirds of victims, their first experience of rape, intimate partner violence, or stalking occurs before age 25; nearly one-half experienced this violence between ages 18 and 24, the traditional years of college attendance. Perpetrators tend to be known to the college student victims as partners, classmates, or acquaintances.

A synthesis of findings from surveys on 27 U.S. college campuses in 2015 suggests that 12 percent of undergraduates experienced nonconsensual sexual contact (penetration or touching) involving physical force or incapacitation (due to drugs, alcohol, being asleep, or passed out) since enrolling, Decker reported. Overall, more than 20 percent of female and transgender or gender nonconforming undergraduate students reported being victimized. Although the reported prevalence is lower, nonconsensual sexual contact also occurs among graduate students.

Decker described the types of sexual violence experienced through technology. Called “digital dating abuse,” these behavior patterns reflect an effort to control, pressure, or threaten a dating partner using a cell phone or the internet—such as looking at a partner’s private information online without permission, tracking a partner’s movements, and monitoring with whom a partner talks and with whom they are friends. Researchers show that digital dating violence and “real life violence” frequently co-occur. Experiencing any kind of sexual violence or digital dating abuse increases the risk of mental health problems and other forms of dysfunction, noted Decker.

A variety of technological innovations are aimed at campus safety. Phone apps can act as a “panic button” to call campus police or allow a person feeling threatened to invite members in their social network to track their journey in real time as they travel. Other apps connect users anonymously to crisis hotlines, medical care, and support services. In Decker’s view, “technology holds the promise as a tool for prevention,” empowering survivors by maximizing their confidentiality in seeking support, and enabling access to accountability and safety in real time. Decker concluded that there is significant unmet need for prevention and connection to care on college campuses for both undergraduate and graduate students.

Nancy Glass described research on the “myPlan” app, an interactive decisionmaking tool for college-age survivors of dating violence and their concerned friends. Developed at Johns Hopkins, the tool is a safety decision aid that can be accessed online or via a phone; the public version is available for free download via iTunes or Android. The app is designed to help users learn about healthy and unhealthy relationships, assess risk within their relationship, and receive personalized information and resources based on their priorities and the level of danger they face. The app helps users develop a personalized action plan for safety.

Glass reported that research shows that young women are less likely to access formal services and more likely to disclose the abuse to a friend. The myPlan app is designed to give victim’s friends the knowledge and confidence to provide effective support. Research also shows that decisionmaking related to intimate partner violence is dynamic rather than linear, she said. The app aims to enable users to weigh potential harms and benefits at various points in time as their situation changes.

Through the College Safety Study, Glass is part of a team currently assessing the effectiveness of the app for decisionmaking and safety planning among female students and their friends, with funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development. They are also testing and evaluating dissemination methods.

Kiersten Stewart emphasized that college campus are legally obligated under Title IX to prevent and respond to gender-based sexual violence. She underscored the importance of reaching out to various stakeholders to promote the myPlan app. She noted that it complements rather than replaces counseling and advocacy from campus staff, health practitioners, or local dating violence programs. To garner support from policymakers, developers of projects like the myPlan app need to be able to quantify costs, impact, the timeframe in which the impact is expected, and the target population who benefits, according to Stewart. She also urged that future campus climate surveys be designed with a consideration of how the results could be used to design interventions. Stewart described a recently released Netflix documentary on high school sexual violence and social media, Audrie and Daisy, which is raising the visibility of this issue as it affects a younger population.

The symposium was sponsored by the Hopkins Population Center and the Population Reference Bureau’s Center for Public Information on Population Research with funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.