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SPECIAL REPORT: Digital Domestic Abuse

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COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) -

It's new, it's increasing and it can be dangerous. Experts are warning of a growing form of domestic violence they call "digital abuse." It's when one partner uses technology to control and intimidate their significant other.

Mental health professionals say it's such a new problem, that you could even be in a digitally abusive relationship and not realize it.

From constant phone calls to threatening text messages, Brittny says her ex-boyfriend's electronic communications was relentless.

"I was always fearful of not answering my phone when he called and not responding to his text messages," Brittny said.

After months of high-tech harassment, Brittny says she realized she was a victim of digital domestic abuse, a new problem psychiatrist Gail Saltz says is growing.

"Now, sadly people are using digital technology to exert their power, their influence, control 24/7," said Saltz.

Digital abuse is just starting to be recognized by experts and goes beyond constant phone calls and text messages.

At the National Domestic Violence Hotline, many callers report their partner's smart phone and social media surveillance is increasing.

"Things that range from constantly checking to what they're posting on social media, asking for passwords, to more extreme cases as where partners create fake identifies on Facebook to see if they can get their partner to engage with someone else, and then accusing them of cheating and flirting in appropriately," said Katie Ray-Jones, who works with the hotline.

And the popularity of being constantly connected can make recognizing a problem difficult.

You may be wondering, isn't this what everybody does? Everybody is on social networking, everybody is texting, isn't that just normal behavior?

But the President of the National Domestic Violence hotline says that normal behavior can turn to obsession. It's important to recognize the warning signs which include extreme jealousy, monitoring, and isolation.

One cyber crime specialist warns digital abusers can escalate their surveillance by using apps which monitor their partner's location through their phone's GPS. Or, installing keylogging software that records what they type on a computer.

"No one needs to be a computer genius to install this software. This software is very, very easy to install," says specialist Art Bowker.

Doctor Saltz says what's even more troubling is that digital abuse can turn dangerous.

"People of all ages are vulnerable to the use of digital technology to basically be abusive, and that abuse that starts in that way can often lead to, directly to physical abuse," she says.

Brittny says when her ex-boyfriend's digital abuse became physical, she ended the relationship. Now she warns others who think their digital boundaries may be violated to reach out for help right away.   

"When I was going through this, I felt like I was completely alone. I didn't tell anybody about what was happening," Brittny said.

The head of the National Domestic Violence Hotline says it's difficult to estimate exactly how many people digital abuse affects, because some victims don't even recognize it.

Experts say in some cases it's a relationship red flag that can be fixed if you work through it, but in others it can rise to the level of stalking or harassment. 

Visit loveisrespect.org to find out if you are in a digitally abusive relationship.

If you ever feel your safety is in jeopardy, you should immediately contact local police.

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