“We met when we were 12 years old. We were kids,” Alexandra Popescu, who is now 18, carefully starts her story on what could have been a teenage romance. After having known each other for about two years, the teens eventually decided to make it official. At the time, Alexandra was 15 and her new boyfriend was 18. She was living in the Romanian capital Bucharest and he lived in another city. It was a long-distance relationship, which meant constant communication on Facebook, Whatsapp and by text message was crucial.
“A few months into the relationship, he started asking me to send him photos of me. He said that he missed me, that nobody will see them. He said that I should trust him, that he loves me,” she recalls. The photos showed Alexandra naked, and she sent them trusting her boyfriend. “I didn’t know the consequences this could have, so I sent them,” Alexandra admits. Things quickly turned sour. “Things were going well until he wanted to break up with me and started being influenced by his friends. He started blackmailing me, telling me that if I don’t have sex with him, he will show the photos to everyone,” she explains.
Alexandra tried to ignore him, but her boyfriend was looking for her and telling her that if she would ever dare be with someone else, that he would catch her and kill her. “He did not want us to be together anymore, but he wouldn’t let me lead another life.” At the time, Alexandra chose not to tell anyone what was happening to her.
“He sent me messages at 3 am in the morning… I was afraid to sleep and, knowing he had the pictures, I imagined he would post them on social media… I felt like my whole world was falling apart, I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I was always trying to make it look like everything was OK. I felt like I was living a double life, that in front of my parents and my friends I was laughing and joking but when I was alone, I was crying,” Alexandra recounts. In the end, her ex-boyfriend sent the photos to his friends without her consent.
That was three years ago. Alexandra still receives messages from those friends. “They don’t threaten me directly, they’re afraid to do that because they’ve seen that I have courage now. But they indirectly tell me things like: ‘you were good looking at that age.’”
The stigma of digital abuse in Romania
In the United States and in the UK, debates on digital abuse and harassment through new technologies are hinting that it may be a new form of domestic violence. Digital abuse is not only recognised as a serious offense, there are ample amounts of hotlines and support groups that teenagers like Alexandra can turn to.
In Romania, where domestic violence (in the classical sense) is still a serious problem, there is little to no talk about digital abuse. According to an INSCOP poll carried out in 2013, a woman is beaten by her partner every 30 seconds and three out of ten Romanians say they have been physically, verbally or psychologically abused from the age of 15.
But things are looking up. A project called In a Relationship by the Friends for Friends Foundation published a report that included witness statements from 1,500 high school students from 80 different cities in Romania. The project explored how teenagers view relationships and what issues couples face between the ages of 16 and 19. Although the foundation’s representatives say the study is not sociological research, In a Relationship is a sneak peek into a topic that is seldom spoken about publicly: violence and digital harassment in teenage couples.
The results from the research show that two out of three teenagers have witnessed a scene of physical or verbal violence in a couple their age. 32% of girls and 28% of boys admit that the person they were in a relationship with had read their messages on their phones at some point. More than a third of the teenagers who were interviewed said they weren’t disturbed by the violation of private space. More than half of them said they would break up with their partners in the case of infidelity. 13% of the girls interviewed admitted they would break up with their partner in case of physical violence or psychological abuse. In a world that is excessively digitalised and where relationships start and end online, how do teenagers deal with digital abuse?
“The phone has become an extension of a person”
Alexandra knew that she could have gone to the police to file a complaint, but she didn’t see this as a solution at the time. “I was a minor and I would have had to involve my parents. Maybe now, if things get worse, I would call the police. But I’m not sure,” she explains. According to Romanian law, a threat (Defined as: “the act of threatening a person by committing a crime or an action directed against them if it is likely to cause them a state of fear”, ed.) can either land someone in prison from three months to a year, or result in a large fine. However, the law doesn’t clearly state that the threat of sending intimate photos falls into this category. For harassment, a person can be sentenced to prison for three to six months or can receive a fine. For blackmail, a person can be sentenced to prison anywhere from one to five years. Harassment can also include “making telephone calls or communicating through technology which, by frequency or content, causes a person to be afraid,” according to the law.
Anca Munteanu, a school counsellor at the Aviation Technical College Henri Coanda in Bucharest, defines abuse as “any behavioural manifestation through which a person attempts to control the actions of another person.” She talks about many forms of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, financial and social, but the case for digital abuse in modern teenage relationships is unusual. “Because the phone has become a kind of extension of a person, digital abuse has also occurred. And digital abuse means any manifestation by which the aggressor tried to undermine the authority or attempts to humiliate the victim. The aggressor tried to limit or block communication, sends sexual messages to convince the victim to send back the same or to persuade them to have sex. The aggressor tells who the victim can or can’t befriend on Facebook, sends threatening messages, stalks the victim on social media, and steals or forces the victim to give their passwords,” she explains.
In Romania, there is only one school counsellor for every 800 students. If a student wants to talk to the school counsellor, they have to come with an agreement signed by a parent or a legal guardian.
Who you gonna call?
Lavinia Pupazan, a teacher at the Colegiul National Spiru Haret in Targu Jiu, an industrial town in southern Romania, highlights the fact that teens don’t feel comfortable seeking advice from adults (let alone their parents) in situations like Alexandra’s. “They tell each other. When I asked them which adult could help them when the situation gets out of control… they said they would call their older brother or sisters. None of them said a parent; none of them said a teacher. Under no circumstances a teacher.” Anca has had the same experience as Lavinia, and says that when teenagers have a problem “the first people they call are their friends. They learn what their friends have done in similar situations and that’s why they don’t make informed decisions.”
This is what 17-year-old Mira did. She asked for advice from her friends when she found herself in a relationship she describes as “toxic”. “I was 16 years old and I received insulting messages after I refused an invitation and decided to stop all communication. He asked me to have sex with him to get over a former girlfriend and to feel better. Of course, I refused because of the reason but also for other personal reasons. That’s why he was upset and I have not talked [to him] since. He sent me messages on Facebook. I didn’t know what he was capable of and for a while I was afraid of what he could do.”
Stories similar to what happened to Mira are common for those who use the Save the Children Romania counselling programme called Orda de Net. It’s a project that has existed in Romania since 2009 and started in Europe in 1999. The project coordinator, Ovidiu Majina, says that the main goal is to create a safer Internet environment for children. Volunteers answer calls on the phone or on social media to give advice to children and teenagers for any Internet-related problems they face, not only when it comes to couples. The volunteers don’t ask for any information other than the caller’s story, not even their age. “The average age of those calling is between 12 and 16 years old, from what they say [when they deliberately mention their age]. It is mostly girls calling, but both girls and boys are in serious situations. The worst situations recorded come from rural areas,” says Ovidiu. Up until now, about 4,500 cases have been recorded in Orda de Net, of which about 2,700 were adolescents. The programme is a way for worried teenagers in situations of digital abuse to have allies.
“A teenager lives in a glass cube”
What is unique about technology, according to psychologist Stefania Coman, is that it gives us options we don’t normally have in face-to-face communication. This is why she believes that technology is so popular amongst teenagers. By blocking and deleting people they no longer want to come in contact with, teenagers “don’t live the negative side [of things] so intensively.” It is a way of avoiding confrontation, but it is a slippery slope. “Someone comes and says: ‘You don’t look good, you don’t dress well,’ and under these conditions the person can easily block [someone]. They reject what they don’t agree with and only retain the beneficial part, only what they like… A teenager lives in a glass cube, they get to live in this version and only keeps the parts that are convenient for them.”
What’s more, Stefania understands how easy it is for teenagers to look to Facebook for a sense of comfort: “Facebook is always there, pretending to be interested. Every time you log in it asks you what you’re thinking about, what hobbies you have, what makes you happy. These are things that many parents don’t ask.” Hence the reluctance for teenagers to turn to their parents in moments of despair with regards to digital abuse.
After her experience with revenge porn, Alexandra sees how isolating social networks can be. “We forget to live in a reality,” she explains, “to feel in depth, and we are more concerned about posting a picture that I was in X place… Couples fight about likes, about things that are not real, which don’t really matter at all.” What happened to Alexandra changed her perspective on things drastically. “It may sound strange to say that, to some extent, I am happy that [these] things happened because I eliminated the useless people in my life, I learned to get to know people better. Now, I have my feet on the ground.”