Images via TikTok

It's time to admit that ‘boyfriend phone hacks’ are cyber abuse

Checking your partner’s messages or tracking their calls are emotionally harmful behaviours, though TikTok might have you believe otherwise.

by Beth Ashley
|
19 October 2021, 1:27pm

Images via TikTok

"I just need to get past his password and then I'm in, can anyone help?" That’s one of the many unnerving comments on a TikTok video uploaded by user @forevercodes. She’s part of a popular community dedicated to cyber hacking information, though it didn’t start out that way. At first the community was mostly made up of cute nerds helping others to get into their locked Amazon accounts. But with time, the group has increasingly come to centre around hacking tutorials for accessing other people’s social media accounts, and guides on how to stalk your partner.

Tips for how to go through your partner's phone are flooding the app, presented as challenges for “testing your boyfriend’s loyalty” or “checking if he’s cheating”. There are step-by-step guides to downloading someone’s Snapchat messaging data alongside guides on installing mirroring apps (so you can see someone using their phone in real time).

These videos are guides to invading privacy, and are often showing viewers how to do something illegal, but they’re being carefully packaged as a means for women to push back against patriarchal power imbalances. Michelle Lefevre, social care expert and author of Beyond the Power and Control Wheel: how abusive men manipulate mobile phone technologies to facilitate coercive control, says this trend is gaining traction because they “provide self-justification for those who follow the tips, presenting it as if it’s self-protective or even empowering to check through your partner’s personal data to see if they are cheating.” It’s also an effective marketing ploy for gaining a following.

It makes sense, since cheating-related content has thrived on TikTok since the app’s infancy. Take the community dubbed #messytiktok, the hashtag for which has amassed an overwhelming 2.6 billion views. Users upload and watch content about "messy" situations – often involving catching cheating partners in the act. With infidelity being such a hot commodity on the app – take, for example, the couch guy debacle – it’s unsurprising that TikTok has become a go-to space for information on how to catch out a partner. Some of these harmful methods are even played for adulation as sweet, such as this video showing a woman checking her boyfriend’s Snapchat messaging data and finding nothing. Lefevre notes that unfortunately, when TikTok users are desperate to draw people in and they know what works, “basic human ethics can get lost along the way.”

Amy*, a 23-year-old, admits she got into the habit of regularly looking through her partner’s phone after seeing TikTok hacks on how to recover deleted text messages. “Jealousy got the better of me, so I took my boyfriend’s phone while he was asleep and checked every message he’d ever sent or received while I locked myself in the bathroom.” she says.

Unfortunately, Amy says she did find evidence of cheating on his phone. But while she was angry at the betrayal, she now knows that doesn’t justify her own behaviour. “For a while, I was almost addicted to going through his phone. It’s hard to trust, but I now know that trust isn’t built by snooping on your partner. That makes everything worse,” Amy says. Her partner now knows about this happening, and they’ve worked through their issues with good communication, addressing her temptation to embark on controlling behaviours, and his temptation to cheat.

Similarly, 20-year-old Charlie* downloaded her partner’s Snapchat data after seeing a now-deleted TikTok showing how to do it. “My friend actually put it in our group chat – all the girls were doing it. It's basically common knowledge that most people have Snapchat to either cheat or buy drugs, so I felt like I should check up. I feel terrible about it now. It’s so fucked. I’d be horrified if he’d done the same thing to me.”

This trend isn’t just problematic, it can be a form of domestic violence called “tech abuse”. Information around the role of tech in abusive relationships is more prevalent these days, but there’s still a lot of ambiguity around just how damaging technology can be in the wrong hands. Electronic devices give dangerous people an extra outlet to hurt their partners, and one that’s pretty easy to anonymise. However, though many ‘phone hack’ TikToks are uploaded by naive teenagers or anxious women worried about being cheated on, it’s important to note that the majority of stalking and coercive control is perpetrated by men.

 “I constantly feel like I’m being watched. I have completely irrational, paranoid thoughts that someone is in the house or tracking me. Cyber abuse was hands-down the hardest thing I ever had to get over.”

This might sound like something straight out of Netflix’s You, but tech abuse is unfortunately common. Domestic abuse charity Refuge say tech’s role in domestic abuse is ever-growing, with the average number of tech abuse cases up 97% in the UK from April 2020 to May this year was up 97% compared with January to March 2020. And according to Teen Dating Abuse and Harassment, a journal by Urban Institute, one in four teens are abused or harassed online or through texts by their partners.

24-year-old Hannah* has been a victim of cyber stalking from both her ex-boyfriend and her stepdad. The former regularly tracked her location on her phone, while her stepdad installed mirroring technology on her laptop so he could watch her activity in real time. “This happened when I was 16, and I’m still living with daily mental health problems every single day. I constantly feel like I’m being watched. I have completely irrational, paranoid thoughts that someone is in the house or tracking me. Cyber abuse was hands-down the hardest thing I ever had to get over,” she says.

Domestic abuse specialist Evie Muir explains that tech is manipulated by abusers who use it as a tool of abuse to maintain power and control. “Naming this kind of behaviour a ‘hack’ or a ‘trend’ minimises and normalises the seriousness of acts, which are abusive and which may even be criminal.”

The behaviours displayed in these TikTok videos sit within multiple forms of abuse – stalking and harassment, coercive control, and emotional abuse to name a few. “Abusive behaviours rarely happen in isolation and they often follow a pattern of escalation. What people may think is a seemingly ‘harmless’ checking of a person’s messages whilst they’re in the shower, can escalate to the installation of tracking devices on a person’s phone, or apps which allow you to listen to their calls,” says Muir.

“Whether or not distrust in a partner is justified or imagined, relationship difficulties can’t be tackled with invasions of privacy.”

Since the victim is often unaware of the tech abuse they are being subject to, this form of hacking is thought of as ultimately benign, something par for the course in committed relationships. According to Muir it’s partly an issue of the public perception of abuse. Abuse depicted in the media is largely outdated. It still portrays the abuse as largely physical, [so we rarely see] accurate depictions of the reality of online abuse. If young people can’t see themselves in the images of abuse that are portrayed in the media, it’s difficult for them to identify their own abusive experiences.” Evie warns abusers can use this perception to their advantage, often saying “It’s not abuse, I never hit you” to their victims.

According to TikTok’s Community Guidelines, these videos don’t violate their policies. They have a robust zero tolerance policy against bullying and harassment and although they stress “this applies to everyone”, it does unfortunately seem to only cover the bullying and harassment of other TikTok users, not sole users bullying their IRL partners and bragging about it. i-D reached out to TikTok for comment on this issue, but they declined to give one.

Tech abuse can have a severe psychological impact on victims. It can take years to recover from, and some may never really move on. Muir says that cyber abuse “embeds deep distrust, paranoia, self-doubt, submissiveness and normalises these things as trauma-responses in future relationships”.  Whether or not distrust in a partner is justified or imagined, relationship difficulties can’t be tackled with invasions of privacy. As Muir says, if you partake in this trend or feel anything other than disgust when you see it, “It’s your responsibility to seek professional support, access therapy, address your control issues, and re-evaluate your relationship with tech.”
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*Names have been changed.**

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