In a local tragedy a week ago, a woman, Tracy Coleman, her brother and her 13-year-old son were shot to death by the woman’s boyfriend, Sharif Whitlock. The murders took place 45 minutes after the woman had filed a domestic violence complaint against her boyfriend. The perpetrator fled the scene and later hanged himself.
The case was the lead incident in a story published yesterday by my local newspaper, the Press of Atlantic City. It was entitled, Hamilton Twp. shooting deaths show familiar domestic violence outcome. The well-done story focused on the larger issue of domestic violence. In Atlantic County, New Jersey over the last two years, 13 people have been killed in domestic violence situations, including three perpetrators. A total of 21 children lost a parent.
Reading about Coleman and Whitlock, I could see all the typical signs of a sociopathic perpetrator and a well-meaning victim. The couple had broken up, but Whitlock constantly called Coleman, accusing and threatening her. For her part, Coleman felt she couldn’t abandon someone who had so many problems.
And then came the statement with caught my attention: Whitlock used technology to try to control his girlfriend.
The article quoted Yasmine Lopez, Coleman’s friend and instructor in the dental hygienist class she was taking:
Lopez said in the days before the shooting, Whitlock constantly called and texted his girlfriend — so much so that the cell phone in her pocket never stopped vibrating. During one of those calls on June 2, Lopez said she overheard Whitlock on the phone, making threats and telling Coleman, “Don’t you understand? I want to kill myself.”
The article then quoted from the police report:
When Coleman spoke to a police officer June 6, she said Whitlock had broken her cell phone. The complaint says Whitlock later bought a new phone, had the number changed to Coleman’s number — giving him access to her friends and family — and “called subjects on (her) contact list and harassed them.”
This harassment via technology now has a name: Digital abuse.
Control in the technology age
Cell phones, e-mail, Facebook and Twitter—digital technology provides abusers with another avenue for asserting control over their victims and monitoring what they are doing.
The Press reporters interviewed Susan Risdon, spokesperson for the National Domestic Violence Hotline. She said that digital abuse often runs in tandem with verbal abuse and physical violence.
“We see a lot of instances where someone will send their partner 50 to 80 text messages a day, and if they can’t get a hold of them, they’ll text their best friend, saying, ‘Are you with her?’” Risdon said.
“Domestic violence involves control, trying to isolate someone from their friends and loved ones, and keeping them to yourself. Digital abuse is a way to extend that isolation.”
Abuse among youth
The victim in this case, Tracy Coleman, was 44 years old. But digital abuse is even more common among those who live and breathe everything digital—teenagers and young adults. A study by the Associated Press and MTV, which was released late last year, found that 50 percent of 14- to 24-year-olds have experienced some form of digital abuse.
Here’s how the study defined digital abuse:
- writing something online that wasn’t true
- sharing information that a person didn’t want shared
- writing something mean
- spreading false rumors
- threatening physical harm
- posting embarrassing photos or video
- being pressured to send naked photos
- being teased
- encouraging people to hurt themselves.
Last year MTV launched a campaign called aimed at stopping the spread of abuse in the form of sexting, cyberbullying and digital dating abuse. The goal is to “empower America’s youth to identify, respond to and stop the spread of various forms of digital harassment.”
The campaign is called A Thin Line, reflecting the thin line between what’s public and what should be private. The website explains several kinds of abuse: sexting, constant messaging, spying, digital disrespect and cruelty. It also offers suggestions for young people to take control of their digital domains. One of the key recommendations: If they see or experience abuse, report it.
I hope young people get the message. Maybe if they learn that digital bullying, harassment and threats are not okay, they’ll get the message that the same behaviors in real life are also not to be tolerated.