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Half of Australians will experience technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetimes: new research

Technology-facilitated abuse is a form of interpersonal violence using mobile, online and/or digital technologies. It includes four main types of behaviours:

  1. monitoring and controlling, such as keeping track of where the victim/survivor is and who they are with

  2. emotional abuse and threats, such as sending put-downs or threatening to harm the victim/survivor

  3. harassment, such as sending offensive material or maintaining unwanted contact

  4. sexual and image-based abuse, including sexual coercion as well as the taking or distribution of sexual imagery without consent.

In a study of 4,562 adult Australians, we explored the prevalence, nature and harms of technology-facilitated abuse. It is the first nationally representative survey of this kind. Our study included interviews with 20 adult victim-survivors and 10 perpetrators.

How common is it?

We found technology-facilitated abuse was very common. One in two (51%) Australian adults reported having experienced at least one abusive behaviour in their lifetime.

Most common was monitoring or controlling behaviours (34%). Emotional abuse and threats of harm were also common (31%), as was harassment (27%). A quarter of respondents had experienced sexual and image-based abuse.

A majority of victim/survivors (62%) said the perpetrator was a man. One in three (37%) said the perpetrator was a current or former intimate partner.

As for self-reported behaviour, one in four Australian adults (23%) reported having engaged in technology-facilitated abuse at least once in their lifetimes. Almost one in two perpetrators (48%) said the victim/survivor was a current or former intimate partner.

Read more: Technology-facilitated abuse of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women is rife in regional and remote areas

What does the abuse look like?

Participants described various ways in which they experienced or perpetrated abuse. This included low-tech forms, such as threatening text messages, through to more high-tech behaviours, such as secretly installing malicious spyware on a digital device. Victim/survivors described having their online identities hacked through social media profiles, emails and location services, as well as being monitored through apps and tracking devices.

For many victim/survivors abused by a partner, the abusive behaviours started during the relationship and escalated after separating. This abuse included perpetrators using their children’s digital devices to control and monitor them after separation.

More than a third of people who had experienced abuse said the perpetrator was a current or former partner. Shutterstock

Monitoring through technology was reported to have facilitated in-person stalking. It was also used to gaslight and psychologically abuse victim/survivors. Several participants reported that perpetrators would hack into their technologies, rather than directly contact them, as police often could not detect or prove this behaviour.

One of the most common forms of harassment described was repetitive, unwanted contact:

There was constant harassment via text message […] The amount of calls, there could be 30, 40, 50 calls a day.

I called her about 150 times in, I don’t know, a two-hour period […] It was probably to stress her out or something.

The harassment was often undertaken through multiple channels and platforms, particularly when the perpetrator had been blocked on one platform. Many victim/survivors reported feeling it was impossible to stop the unwanted contact, because perpetrators kept finding new ways to harass them.

Who is being abused?

Of those most likely to have experienced victimisation, there were high rates among sexuality diverse populations. Almost three in four (73%) of those identifying as LGB+ disclosed at least one victimisation experience. Indigenous and First Nations people also reported high victimisation, with seven in ten (70%) respondents reporting at least one such experience. Rates were also high for respondents with a disability, with almost three in five (57%) reporting at least one such experience.

We did not have a large enough sample of trans and gender-diverse participants to draw reliable statistics. However, our interview data showed those who were not cis-gender experienced unique forms of technology-facilitated abuse. They were often targeted because of their gender identity.

The high victimisation rate for minority groups could be attributed to their high uptake of communications technologies. Online spaces are an avenue to connect with communities, express their identities, seek help and find a space of belonging that may not be as readily accessible offline.

However, increased use of online spaces can increase exposure to technology-facilitated abuse. As Bronwyn Carlson found in relation to Indigenous Australians, positive use of online spaces can be “circumscribed by broader structural processes of homophobia, racism, and misogyny”. Some rates of victimisation for minority groups may be interpreted within this wider social context of inequality and discrimination.

We also found some differences in abuse according to gender. Women (40%) were more likely than men (32%) to experience abuse from a current or former intimate partner. Women were also more likely than men (28%; 19%) to have experienced repeated abuse from the same perpetrator, feel fearful due to the abuse (26%; 13%), and report that the same abuser had tried to control them in other ways (33%; 25%).

Women victims/survivors also had higher psychological distress scores than men victims/survivors. This indicates higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Read more: Reports of 'revenge porn' skyrocketed during lockdown, we must stop blaming victims for it

What does it mean?

Overall, these results show many Australians experience technology-facilitated abuse, causing them great anxiety and distress. We must ensure support and justice responses cater to a diversity of victim/survivors.

Technology-facilitated abuse certainly has gendered dimensions. However, focusing on gender only is not sufficient to fully understand its prevalence, forms and impacts.

This is not a unique form of abuse. Rather, it is a tactic abusers use to target victim/survivors persistently and, often, anonymously.

There have been some recent changes to improve responses and legal frameworks relating to technology-facilitated abuse in Australia. Our research suggests more needs to be done. This relates not only to the law, but also to policy responses within organisations that may encounter victimisation or perpetration disclosures.

Ultimately, efforts to address technology-facilitated abuse need to be integrated into our strategies for responding to and preventing all forms of violence, abuse and inequality.

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