Technology-Facilitated Abuse in Australia

Dr Asher Flynn, Associate Professor of Criminology at Monash University – July 21, 2021

Dr Asher Flynn is an Associate Professor of Criminology at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. She is the Vice President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology, and a Facebook Women’s Safety Global Advisor. 

Dr Anastasia Powell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Justice Studies at RMIT University in Victoria, Australia. She is a Director of Our Watch, Australia’s National Organisation for the Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children.

This week we are launching new insights around the experience of domestic and family violence, sexual assault, health, legal and allied service sector workers who work with victims and perpetrators of technology-facilitated abuse across Australia. This research will inform both policy development to support victims of abuse and as well as supporting greater collaboration amongst sector services, technology companies and government to create solutions for change.

Technology-facilitated abuse is a growing problem that has garnered increasing policy, program and research attention. The term is wide-ranging and inclusive of many subtypes of interpersonal violence and abuse utilising mobile, online and other digital technologies, such as stalking, psychological abuse, sexual and image-based abuse and harassment.

In a recent national survey of 338 sector workers, we found technology-facilitated abuse to be a significant problem, with victims facing many impacts and barriers to help-seeking.

Sector workers reported the majority of victims to be women aged 18 to 34 years, girls aged 17 and under, as well as transgender, non-binary and intersex people. The main perpetrators were identified as men aged 18 to 34 years and boys aged 17 years and under, with former intimate partners, de facto or spouses most likely to initiate the abuse to intimidate or control the victim, cause distress or fear, or isolate them and restrict their activities.

The survey asked sector workers to respond to questions about abusive behaviours that spanned three key areas: monitoring, stalking or controlling behaviours; psychological/emotional abuse or threatening behaviours; and sexual or image-based abuse, including sexual and digital dating harassment. Some of the key findings included:

  • 83% reported victims being sent insulting or harassing messages.
  • 77% had experienced perpetrators maintaining unwanted contact with victims.
  • More than half worked with victims who were monitored by perpetrators (58%), had access to a telephone, mobile phone or the internet controlled (56%), or knew of perpetrators who threatened to physically assault the victim (55%)
  • One-third were aware of the hacking or accessing of victims’ emails, social media or other online accounts without consent (33%) and victims being threatened with the posting of a nude or sexual photo or video without consent (28%).

Sector workers reported the constant monitoring and abuse through technology as creating a sense of omnipresence for victims, feeling as though they were always being watched by the perpetrator. Respondents said this made victims hypervigilant and fearful, feeling as though the abuse would never end.

Respondents reported that last year’s bushfire crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated technology-facilitated abuse, with less ability to assist clients. They further identified significant obstacles to helping clients who are experiencing abuse, and expressed concerns over the adequacy of current responses, such as difficulties in finding up-to-date information, the abuse not being taken seriously by police and courts, and inadequate responses from technology providers.

While this study has provided some insight on this growing social, legal and health problem from the perspectives of service providers who respond to technology-facilitated abuse in their roles, further research is needed to develop a deeper understanding of the experiences and needs of victims of technology-facilitated abuse, as well as how to respond to perpetrators and inform prevention activities. This includes actively working alongside platforms such as Facebook to improve policies, responses and tools to prevent and detect technology-facilitated abuse; something Facebook’s Global Women’s Safety Advisory Group is seeking to achieve through initiatives such as the Women’s Safety Hub.

Further research is also required to establish community prevalence rates of technology-facilitated abuse to better understand its scope, nature and harms. A national representative survey of adult Australians’ experiences of technology-facilitated abuse is currently underway, alongside in-depth interviews with victims and perpetrators, and is expected to be released in 2022.

 

If you or someone you know is experiencing technology-facilitated abuse, you can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit their website. Resources and support on technology-facilitated abuse are also available via the eSafety Commissioner website or contact the police in an emergency.

The findings from this report represent Phase I of the Technology Facilitated Abuse project examining the extent, nature and contexts of technology-facilitated abuse in Australia. The project was announced in June 2020 and was made possible by funding from ANROWS and the Australian Government Department of Social Services. Facebook was one of seventeen technology, industry and/or community-based organisations advising on the survey.

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