The story of the Boston College student accused of inducing her boyfriend to kill himself stands as an appalling tale of what prosecutors described as domestic abuse. But one aspect seems especially emblematic of our time: The couple exchanged an average of 1,200 texts a day, including messages that allegedly goaded Alexander Urtula to take his own life.
Specialists in abusive relationships say that texting, by its nature, can add firepower to the usual weapons of domestic violence: control, isolation, and secrecy — especially when they occur with such astounding frequency.
Over the course of their 18-month relationship, prosecutors said, 21-year-old Inyoung You pushed Urtula away from friends and family and exploited his deepening depression. Urtula jumped off a garage to his death on the day he was to graduate from BC last May. You, who returned to her home in South Korea, has been indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Domestic abuse involves “a systematic wearing down of somebody’s supports,” by isolating a person from others and constantly berating and belittling the victim, said Howard Yaffe, who runs domestic violence services for Riverside Community Care, a large mental health provider in Dedham.
The smartphone gives an abuser a way to bombard the victim with negative messages around the clock. An angry text message that interrupts a person’s daily activities “gets into your head really fast,” Yaffe said. “It’s so immediate.”
And it reaches the person no matter where they go. “It used to be you can go to work and focus on something else,” he said. But constant texting allows no safe place.
Stephanie Tabashneck, a Wellesley psychologist and lawyer who works with children and families, said it’s common for young adults to text hundreds of times a day. But typically the texts are going to many people.
When the texts are just between a pair, “you can see how that can lend it itself to shadowing and monitoring and emotional blackmail in a way that doesn’t allow the target much respite from having to be responsive all the time,” she said. “If someone did that in person, it would be called stalking and harassment.”
Texting, Tabashneck said, “can provide unlimited access to a person. We’re seeing texting being used as a method of extreme coercion.”
And the abuse happens unobserved. Friends or relatives might pick up on verbal recriminations, but no one hears what’s in the text, she said: “There’s no external feedback.”
Nearly everyone turns their attention away from others and toward their phones when a text comes in, noted Robert Kinscherff, an associate vice president and professor at William James College. So texting hundreds of times a day inevitably keeps the focus on one obsessive relationship and eliminates opportunities to hear other viewpoints, he said.
“It can create a kind of electronic tunnel vision, particularly when it’s used to exploit the vulnerability of one of the persons in the relationship,” Kinscherff said.
The effect of a text extends beyond the five or 10 seconds it takes to read it, added Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California Irvine, who studies the impact of digital media on people’s lives. Emotions and anxiety surround anticipating the text, and then reacting to it. Exchanging a torrent of texts every day has got to interfere with a person’s life, she said: “It’s a way of controlling.”
But she cautioned that beyond prosecutors’ initial characterizations, nothing is known about the texts in Urtula’s case, making it hard to draw any conclusions. She noted that people text all kinds of things — photos, videos, GIFs, not just words.
John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University in New Jersey, and author of the book “Psychology of the Digital Age,” said that texting frees people “to say and do things online that we wouldn’t say or do in the face-to-face world.”
“We also tend to experience text communication as a conversation inside our head, as an extension of our thoughts,” he said in an e-mail to The Boston Globe. “And inside our heads we feel more willing to say anything. For the person receiving text communications, it can feel like a powerful voice speaking from within one’s own mind.”
The specialists emphasized that it’s important for friends and family members to intervene — with care — when they suspect someone has fallen into an abusive relationship, something that can happen to anyone at any age.
These signs of trouble can be discerned even when a couple communicates by text: the person becomes isolated, refuses to engage in activities because the partner disapproves, becomes unable to make decisions without checking with the partner, or is secretive about the relationship.
If you suspect abuse, express concern but don’t be judgmental, the specialists advise. Victims are already filled with shame. Don’t criticize the partner you suspect of abuse. Instead, let your friend know that you’re concerned about their well-being and ready to talk or offer other help at any time.
And don’t be fooled into thinking that all is well if there’s no sign of physical abuse. “Emotional abuse can be far worse than physical abuse,” Yaffe said.
If you need help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Domestic Violence Hotline is at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).