“Trust” in the Age of the Internet

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“Trust” in the Age of the Internet

Categories: Blog

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness and Prevention Month, or #TDVAM. Hallie Cohen is one of our Violence Prevention Educators at YWCA Evanston/North Shore. She facilitates a program called Building Healthy Relationships on recognizing the difference between healthy versus unhealthy or abusive relationships, understanding consent, setting boundaries, and more with students aged 8-18.

Hallie Cohen
Hallie Cohen, YWCA Violence Prevention Educator

In my classes with middle and high schoolers, I almost always do a lesson that goes like this: I read a relationship conflict scenario, and four different ways to respond, each correlated with a different corner of the room. Students move to the corner closest to the way they think they would handle the situation, and we discuss their choices. Sometimes, especially the older students can sense a “right” answer and pick it out, whether that’s how they would actually act. But there’s one scenario that almost always plays out very differently:

You and your partner seem to have issues trusting each other. One day while watching a movie together, your partner gets up to go to the bathroom, and leaves their unlocked cellphone behind. Do you…

  1. Not look at the phone because it’s none of your business.
  2. Look through the phone as fast as you can before they get back.
  3. Not look through the phone now, but this event motivates you to have a conversation about how you should be allowed to look through each other’s phones to build trust.
  4. Don’t actually look through their phone, but pretend to be looking through it so you can see their reaction when they get back.

In my average class of 20-30 middle schoolers, there are almost always less than five students who choose the first option. The majority of students spread across the other three options and always justify their choice with “if they did nothing wrong, they should have nothing to hide.” The students I work with are bright and reject many outdated ideas about consent and relationship standards that previously pervaded our culture, but this notion is still pervasive, if not stronger in the internet age.

February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, and February 11 is Safer Internet Day. I think it’s important that we explore the reality of internet surveillance in relationships. Today you can see exactly when a person was last active on most social medias, and you can see their location at any time on the Snap Map or other messaging sites. Many of my students, peers, and even teachers continuously share their location with their partner, and some share all of their passwords.

While these are decisions that must be made in the unique context of each individual relationship, and there are some valid reasons and uses for these features, I still want to address the “if they did nothing wrong, they should have nothing to hide” notion that allows some to believe that near constant surveillance helps us trust our loved ones. So….do you need to surveil a loved one to trust them? Where does trust even come from if not evidence like this?

I’m partial to Brené Brown’s definition of trust. Through her research conducting qualitative interviews of hundreds of people about topics like trust and vulnerability, she found that, while we expect trust to be built through grand gestures (think trust falls), the examples people gave were much smaller and (seemingly) insignificant. Trust-building behaviors that emerged in her research included: remembering to ask about family (or topics that aren’t directly relevant to your relationship with them), remembering names of other loved ones, showing up to funerals, games, and events, checking in when someone seems down or off, not gossiping about other friends with each other, and asking for help when you need it. Relationships move at the speed of trust, and trust must be built (often) slowly over time through a collection of honesty and moments like these.

Though trust is built, it is also a choice. Choosing to trust someone means making yourself vulnerable, and believing that they will honor their commitments to you, even when you aren’t around to check on them. When we trust, we don’t feel the need to know where someone is or who they are talking to at all times. So while it is tempting to think sharing your location, passwords, etc. is a way to prove your honesty and loyalty, I would argue that research shows the opposite. Feeling like you need to be in constant control or total knowledge of all aspects of someone’s life is evidence of mistrust. Further, if these feelings become behaviors, such as a person insisting a partner share their location/passwords or restricting a loved one from talking to/seeing certain people, they are warning signs of relationship abuse. Love is about acceptance and taking the vulnerable risk of trust, not control.

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