National survey reveals alarming increase in technological abuse

Fear. Terror. Isolation.

These were some of the most reoccurring words used by frontline practitioners to describe technology-facilitated abuse and domestic violence in Australia when completing the Second National Survey.

When a person is subjected to domestic violence, they might feel like they’re trapped in a cage. For people experiencing technological abuse, that cage goes with them, wherever they go. It’s another crisis occurring at pandemic levels that needs to be stopped.

Last week, the Second National Survey on Technology-Facilitated Abuse and Domestic Violence in Australia was released by WESNET, who conducted the Telstra-funded survey alongside Dr Delanie Woodlock and researchers from Curtin University. 442 domestic violence workers across all states and territories in Australia completed the survey, repeating and expanding upon the original survey conducted in 2015 by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria.

Since the 2015 survey, there has been significant and concerning increases in cases of technology facilitated domestic and family violence across Australia. Our call to action has never been clearer: there needs to be more training in best-practice responses across the board- in the community for victim/survivors and their families, for frontline domestic and family violence workers, for police and for the judiciary[RF1] . More community education around the realities of technology abuse is a crucial step in reducing the climbing statistics.

“Technology abuse is entrapping, abusive and overwhelming for victim survivors,” says Delia Donovan, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW. “Connecting and interacting freely online is a basic human right. We must do everything possible to educate our community about technological abuse including digital inclusion and the promotion of tech literacy so we can help prevent it.”

“It’s a concerning issue – how frequently we’re starting to see smartphones be misused,” says CEO of WESNET, Karen Bentley. “The most common type of technology abuse is using smartphones and social media to send abusive messages and threats.”

One of the most disappointing findings from the survey was the increase of technological abuse had increased by 30% since the 2015 survey, with two thirds of frontline workers reporting they see abusive messages are being sent all the time.

“We ask them – is it all the time, often, rarely, or never?” says Ms Bentley.  “And what we’ve been seeing is a massive shift towards frontline workers seeing it all the time now. It’s not just occasionally – this is everybody, all the time.”

There has also been a significant increase in the use of video cameras as a tool for technology-facilitated abuse. Whether it’s installing cameras inside the home, using them to record something incriminating and using it to using that to humiliate, shame, or coerce somebody in a particular way, the use of video cameras increased by 183%. There was also a staggering 244.8% increase in practitioners reporting perpetrators’ use of GPS tracking of victim/survivors. And with more smartphones saturating the market, there may only be a rise in these figures.

“We are living in a technology age where parental monitoring apps are a new norm,” says Ms Bentley. “Are we raising a generation of children who are going to anticipate that loved ones are going to be tracking and monitoring what they’re doing everywhere they go?”

There’s certainly a significant difference between responsible parents trying to keep a child safe or consenting adults staying in touch versus an abusive intimate partner relationship. On one hand, it can be a useful tool to help people find each other when out and about, but what when it just crosses that line to be more controlling?

The survey also recorded a substantial difference in vulnerable demographics when it came to technological abuse. WESNET recorded a significant shift in the surveys conducted between 2015 and 2020 – the most common age group in 2015 was 25 to 30 year olds. But in 2020, it’s 35 to 44 year olds.

WESNET has two possible theories for the shift. One: younger women are actually better able to manage their privacy and their safety and their security through their own technology settings. And therefore, they don’t feel as affected. However, it could also be that younger women are less likely to actively seek support through formal support agencies, even though those younger women, aged 18 to 34, are 2.7 times more likely to experience domestic violence than women 35 and over.

“It dispels the common myth that technology abuse is a young people’s problem” says Ms Bentley. “The frontline workers are seeing technology abuse happen across all age groups.”

Ms Bentley explained that where the sector really needs to see change is through the prevention space. “All primary prevention training we’re doing now needs to also have a technological angle,” she says.

And what would this look like? “It would include doing things like possibly building it into men’s behaviour change programs, training for police and magistrates – particularly in that family court, due to the high number of frontline workers who found that abusers were just routinely using contact orders to hurl abuse in very covert ways – ways that would not be recognized by the court as a breach.”

This is an area domestic violence and technological abuse survivor Jane Matts has experience with. “I was at a hearing in family court, and I could hear my ex-husbands phone ping every time I sent a text to my solicitor,” she says. “He was getting all of my messages.” If it was just one or two times it may have been a coincidence, however it happened on more than 17 occasions.

“I didn’t know enough at the time legally to do anything, and no one I asked would help me.”

The survey indicates the dire need more specialized training for domestic and family violence workers to just try and keep up with the rapid development and widespread use of modern technology. There is also the need for technology companies to understand their platforms may be being misused by abusers, and some of their customers may be experiencing violence and abuse through their products and services, and that they need to build their systems with safety in mind.

“We’re starting to see that happen with some of the big corporates setting up vulnerable customer teams or specific teams that have ways that customers who are experiencing domestic violence to reach out,” says Ms Bentley. 

“A positive sign we did hear is that many people are starting to reach out to services – especially during and after COVID – to talk about abuse.

“Standing up and speaking out, it’s very hard.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence help can be found via:
1800RESPECT or 1800 737 732 which offers a national counselling helpline, information and support

NSW Domestic Violence Line 1800 65 64 63 which offers a state-wide counselling helpline, information and support

Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491 for men, or friends and family of men using violence

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