Technology has changed our world for the better in many ways, but technology abuse is one way it’s changed lives for the worse. Communication with a smartphone or computer is easier and faster than ever before. Technology is just another way for a domestic violence perpetrator to harrass and abuse their victim – and technology abuse is only getting worse.
Krista Mogensen from the Domestic Violence Resource Centre in Victoria said that technology abuse has taken stalking “to a whole new level.” Cyber abuse is increasing – some frontline DV workers use the word ‘skyrocketing’ which gives the sense of great momentum and something that feels powerful and uncontained. “This is a rampant problem. Technology-facilitated abuse is everywhere and is having devastating impacts on women’s mental health.,” says Krista.
Technology Abuse Now Widespread
A recent survey found 98 per cent of domestic violence victims experienced technology abuse. This is on top of the other forms of domestic violence they have had to deal with whether it be sexual or physical violence, financial, emotional or psychological abuse. Karen Willis, who runs support line 1800 RESPECT, says, “Technology hasn’t created domestic violence or sexual assault.” Technology is just another tool in the kit of domestic violence perpetrators. “Domestic violence and sexual assault have been around for a very, very long time, and those who choose to use violence in their relationships will use whatever tools they may have available,” says Karen.
Most of us have our phones with us 24/7. We can feel vulnerable and anxious without them, but for some their phone starts to make them feel vulnerable and anxious. Perpetrators can harass their victims 24/7. “It’s not just a physical presence,” Krista said. You don’t have to be particularly tech-savvy to call or send text messages. This is the most common form of tech abuse. To the average person many of the texts may look completely innocuous, but there is always a context. Perpetrators are ‘coding’ their texts by using language that has a hidden meaning for the victim – one that is shared with the perpetrator. For example, a perpetrator might tell his victim he wishes they were back in a destination they’d visited on holidays before, knowing that was a spot where abuse took place.
Cyber abuse or cyber-stalking starts to get a little harder, but not by much. Unfortunately, the anonymity of the internet can provide protection from authorities and easy access to victims for the abusers. GPS trackers are being used by perpetrators to follow and monitor their partners or ex-partners. This never used to be an issue that domestic front line workers encountered, but now three out of ten have come across this with the victims they are helping. Facebook, too is a common way that victims are being abused and stalked. “We’re having more women ring up our service who are being abused in this way and our research is certainly finding it is increasing,” senior researcher at Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria Doctor Delanie Woodlock said. “What makes [cyber abuse] unique, and why we think it’s increasing, is because it’s easy. Men can do this at a distance. . .It’s also harder to prove … and it means [the woman] is very vulnerable and exposed,” she said. Revenge porn, too, has become such an issue that several Australian states now have dedicated laws against it.
Raising awareness of technology abuse helps domestic violence victims to be able to fight against it themselves, but also arms others to support them appropriately. Former business analyst Katalin said she had been cyber stalked for six years after rejecting advances from a male colleague in her office’s IT department. Katalin said complaints to police were not taken seriously, and she instead was told to see a psychiatrist. Dr Woodlock said Katalin’s experience was consistent with her research, in that women often struggled to be taken seriously when reporting cyber harassment and perpetrators were able to make victims feel “crazy”. She says, “Women said the mental health impacts were huge, with not being believed, feeling they were crazy, and it is just never ending.” This ‘crazy-making’ just adds to the already hefty burden that victims have to bear.
Retreating is Not the Answer
Moving forward and embracing technology safely is how victims of domestic violence should be encouraged. Rather than isolating themselves with no technology, they need to be empowered with becoming tech savvy. WESNET – a women’s services network – has been training domestic violence service providers on how to react to technology abuse. Julie Oberin, chair of Women’s Services Network, said, “When we started this training five years ago, people used to say, ‘No that’s not happening, you’ve been watching too much American television, and women have got mental health issues or they’re paranoid. But we just know that’s not the case.”
To help women escape from dangerous situations, Telstra have donated 20,000 smartphones to WESNET. This is so that these victims can have a safe device – one in which their abusers do not have access to them. There have been some cases where women have been tracked to their safe refuges through their personal phones, so it’s a serious concern. Safety programs are also being taught to victims so that they can manage their own technology and software they may be using. They’re also being taught how to gather evidence against their abuser “so that the criminal justice system’s got some material to actually hold him to account”.
In 2013 Facebook launched a privacy guide aimed specifically at survivors of domestic violence. It was created in partnership with National Network to End Domestic Violence. Cindy Southworth from NNEDV, says, “Privacy and safety go hand in hand for survivors. The most dangerous time for a victim of abuse is when they are preparing to leave or have left an abusive partner,” she said. “Telling a victim to go offline to be safe is not only unacceptable, it further isolates her from people who love her.Survivors shouldn’t have to live their lives avoiding every possible situation that the abusive person could misuse.” The guide helps users to be in control of the information they share. It’s also recognition for domestic violence victims that this is a tangible issue with solutions that mean they do not need to withdraw from tech.
There is a fantastic Australian site which has excellent resources and tips for technology safety. The site is called SmartSafe – Technology Abuse and Your Safety which you can find here. They also have a free app called SmartSafe+ which is available from the App Store (iOS) and Google Play (Android). It is an app designed for victims to collect and store evidence of family violence.
If you suspect someone is a victim of domestic violence, then ask if you can help. Be their friend because often they feel like there is no one else. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger then please call the police on ‘000’.
At Divorce Lawyers Brisbane we care about domestic violence victims. If you have experienced physical and sexual abuse, emotional and/or verbal abuse or threatening behaviour we can assist you in making an urgent Application for a Protection Order. We offer a free, 10-minute phone conversation with one of our family lawyers. Please contact us today.