Technology-facilitated abuse refers to the use of mobile, internet and surveillance technologies in interpersonal harms, such as online sexual harassment, stalking, partner violence, and image-based abuse.
Australian research has shown that technology-facilitated abuse is a growing problem – in particular, as a tool used by perpetrators in violence against women.
Our previous collaborative research into image-based abuse suggests that since 2016, image-based abuse among Australians increased from one in five being victimised, to one in three. We also found the perpetration of image-based abuse had increased since 2016 from one in 10 perpetrators, to one in six.
This is supported by international research suggesting technology has increased the ease with which perpetrators can engage in other forms of harassing, stalking and controlling behaviours. Much of this occurs in the context of domestic and sexual violence, as well as in dating contexts and from strangers online.
Emerging evidence suggests that technology-facilitated abuse may also be increasing during the social isolation measures introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the changing social, economic and relational environments we now live in.
Between March and May 2020, the Australian Office of the eSafety Commissioner received more than 1000 reports of image-based abuse, representing a 210% increase on average weekly reports received in 2019.
Double the number of cases of image-based abuse were similarly reported in England in April 2020, compared with April 2019. In addition to restrictions on social interactions leading to a probable increase in the creation and sharing of intimate images (consensually and non-consensually), the rise in reports has been attributed to domestic and family violence during isolation periods, “sextortion” scams, and financial pressure.
There are also reports internationally that other forms of technology-facilitated abuse may likewise be on the rise.
Researchers from the United States have noted that alongside increased reports in physical forms of domestic or family violence, technology-based abuses such as stalking and controlling behaviours commonly occur alongside these more visible forms of violence. Cyber abuse, including sexual harassment, gender and sexuality-based hate, as well as dating abuse, may also be more common as we immerse ourselves even further into online forms of communication and connection.
But there’s still so much we don’t know about technology-facilitated abuse.
The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022 identifies that family, domestic and sexual violence are gendered crimes that have unequal impacts on women, and for which the prevalence in the Australian community is unacceptably high. The plan acknowledges that while men do experience violence, it’s often at the hands of other men, frequently strangers. and in public spaces.
For women, meanwhile, experiences of violence are most likely to be at the hands of men who are known to them, often intimately, and to occur in private spaces such as the home.
Indeed, this national shared understanding of the ways in which experiences of violence can be gendered is based on decades of research evidence nationally and internationally.
Both the policy context in Australia and the research evidence to date suggests that an understanding of the gendered nature of such violence requires analysis of its extent, and its nature, impacts and the contexts in which that violence occurs. Such nuance in gendered analyses of violence is vital, because while all violence is unacceptable, different contexts of violence will require different strategies for prevention and response.
To date across Australia, there are no reliable national prevalence estimates of the multiple forms of technology-facilitated abuse, or how these might be interrelated. There’s also no representative quantitative research, and very little qualitative research exploring self-reported perpetration of technology-facilitated abuse and its predictors, that might be addressed in services or prevention programs.
Though the National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS) has found that younger Australians hold attitudes that minimise the harms of electronic forms of harassment and stalking, no national study to date has investigated the correlations between such attitudes and technology-facilitated abuse perpetration.
There’s also little qualitative research into women’s experiences of multiple forms of technology-facilitated abuse in different relational contexts, and across the diverse Australian community.
Gaps also exist in our knowledge of the types of training and resources needed from those who provide support services and resources to victims, and who work with perpetrators of technology-facilitated abuse.
With the rapid advancement of digital technologies and the changing nature of social, educational, work and other forms of interaction, it’s vital we understand how best we can support the frontline workers at the face of dealing with technology-facilitated abuse.
Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), with support from the federal government’s Department of Social Services, has funded a two-year research study led by Associate Professor Asher Flynn (Monash University), with Associate Professor Anastasia Powell (RMIT University), to further investigate the extent, nature and impacts of these harms.
The first stage of this research, launched this week, is a survey seeking the advice of sector stakeholders who work with victims or perpetrators of technology-facilitated abuse across community services, human services, allied health, legal services, justice professionals, prevention programs, as well as domestic violence and sexual assault services.
This sector survey seeks to gather the vital practice-based knowledge of these professionals who may come into contact with either victims or perpetrators of technology-facilitated abuse. It also aims to gauge services sector workers’ views on the current responses, prevention activity and future needs to better address technology-facilitated abuse.
The survey, found here, is completely anonymous, and can be completed online in about 20 minutes.
We’re encouraging all professionals, whether they work directly with victims or perpetrators of abuse, or in the services and prevention sector more broadly, to contribute their knowledge and ideas for improving our collective efforts on this vital issue. We’re extremely keen to receive input from workers of diverse backgrounds and/or who work with clients of diverse backgrounds.
This article was co-authored with Dr Anastasia Powell, associate professor of criminology & justice studies at RMIT University.