Harmful or Harmless? What We Know About Electronic Partner Surveillance

4 min read

Mobile devices have made it much easier to stay connected with our romantic partner. Unburdened by the physical constraints of the offline world, partners can be in constant contact with each other and stay updated on each other’s lives, whether through texting or through social media.

These same online sources of information may also be used to monitor what our partner is doing and who they are interacting with. This is called electronic partner surveillance.

Source: Dragana_Gordic / Freepik

Source: Dragana_Gordic / Freepik

Electronic partner surveillance is a heavily discussed topic in scientific literature. In many cases, electronic partner surveillance is considered a particularly harmful phenomenon, and many studies have shown that these surveillance behaviors can have a negative impact on partners’ mental health and their satisfaction with the relationship (for an overview of this literature, see, for example, Caridade et al., 2019). In extreme cases, electronic partner surveillance can even be linked to offline (or “face-to-face”) psychological and physical partner violence (e.g., Schokkenbroek et al., 2022).

Who Finds It Harmful—And Who Doesn’t?

While these research findings make it very clear that electronic partner surveillance can be harmful with (severe) negative consequences, several scientific studies imply that most people who actually engage in electronic partner surveillance do not perceive these behaviours as harmful (e.g., Lucero et al., 2014). In fact, partner surveillance practices seem to be rather normalized among certain people: Checking a partner’s phone and messages is often perceived as common (Stonard et al., 2017), and some young adults interpret their partner’s surveillance practices as “proof of love” (e.g., Borrajo et al., 2015).

Increased ICT use (Phillips & Klest, 2022), increased expectations for constant communication (Basting et al.., 2023), and, consequentially, the normalization of partner surveillance behaviours could be part of the reason why people who experience partner surveillance do not recognize their partner’s behaviours as harmful.

But another explanation, by Ashcraft (2000), suggests that one reason it might be difficult to identify harassment and controlling behaviours as abuse is due to the fact that the language used to describe abuse generally emphasizes physical actions. This makes non-physical forms of intimate partner violence, such as electronic partner surveillance, much harder to recognize. Indeed, recent studies have found that the young adults in their sample failed to identify certain violent behaviours and did not perceive behaviours that demonstrated control and jealousy as alarming (Rebollo-Catalan & Mayor-Buzon, 2020).

Source: pchvector / Freepik

Source: pchvector / Freepik

Can It Sometimes Be Harmless?

Another way to look at the normalization of electronic partner surveillance is that maybe not all surveillance behaviours are maliciously driven by insecurity, distrust, or jealousy. In some or perhaps even most cases, partner surveillance may be an expression of commitment and care.

Monitoring a partner’s social media activity, for example, could be a way to stay more connected with their world. Checking a partner’s location, on the other hand, could be a way to make sure they are safe.

Indeed, a recent survey among Flemish adults revealed that although most did not think partner surveillance is appropriate, most of the reasons they imagined that they would engage in this behaviour were related to care (e.g., checking if the partner came home safely) or to practical reasons related to managing the household (e.g., estimating when to start cooking based on the partner’s live location) (Dereymaeker et al., 2022). Additionally, in some couples, electronic partner surveillance occurs consensually or even bidirectionally, with both partners monitoring each other’s online and offline activities.

What Does This Mean for Couples?

It makes a lot of sense that most people would disapprove of partner surveillance practices when they hear about them for the first time. However, approaching partner surveillance as an inherently ill-intended practice would mean ignoring other important and insightful perspectives that paint a less malicious picture.

What’s more, what works for some couples may not work that well for others. While digital technology is omnipresent in our daily lives, none of us have yet received a clear manual on how to build and navigate healthy relationships in these vastly changing and intertwining online and offline environments. Most people are simply trying to figure out, often through trial and error, what works for them and their relationship.

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Still, we do know this: For the good of both partners and the relationship, electronic partner surveillance should be used in a way that respects both partners’ privacy and autonomy, and that allows both partners to have a say in what works for them.

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