New research uncovers growing threat of technology-facilitated abuse

A survey funded by the Morrison Government has found the majority of surveyed support workers reported that a lot of the time women seeking support for family, domestic and sexual violence receive abusive messages, are harassed or are monitored and tracked using digital or online communication.

Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety today released findings from a survey of 338 support service workers across Australia on their experiences supporting victims of technology-facilitated abuse including via phone, text messages, email and social media.

Sector workers reported a lot of the time victims were women aged 18 to 34 years, while the main perpetrators were identified as men and boys of the same age groups with former intimate partners, de facto or spouses most likely to be the abusers.

The survey, conducted by researchers from Monash University and RMIT University, Associate Professors Asher Flynn and Anastasia Powell, also found that:

  • 83.1 per cent of workers reported working a lot of the time with victims who were sent putdowns or insulting or harassing messages;
  • 77.3 per cent of workers reported victims experienced ongoing unwanted contact via digital or online communication a lot of the time;
  • 58.3 per cent of workers reported victims experienced being tracked (e.g. constant phone calls, messages, GPS tracking, monitoring through social media websites) a lot of the time;
  • 56.2 per cent of workers reported victims experienced attempts at having their access to technology controlled a lot of the time; and
  • More than 40  per cent of workers reported the response from dating platforms and apps to take technology-facilitated abuse seriously was ‘never’ adequate.

Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Minister for Government Services Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC said addressing technology-facilitated abuse would be a priority in the next National Plan to end violence against women and children and a focus of the National Summit on Women’s Safety.

“As technology becomes more central to our everyday lives, unfortunately there are more opportunities for it to be misused for abuse and domestic violence,” Minister Reynolds said.

“Everyone has the right to access technology safely and enjoy the benefits of being online and connected. This is particularly important for those experiencing domestic and family violence, so they can stay connected to family and friends and access information and support.”

ANROWS CEO Padma Raman PSM said this was the first report of a larger research project that would provide much-needed evidence to respond to gaps in understanding the nature and contexts of women’s experiences of technology-facilitated abuse.

“This important research would inform the development of prevention and response initiatives,” Ms Raman said. 

This project is one of 10 that ANROWS is conducting, made possible with funding from the Morrison Government, to support the priorities of the Fourth Action Plan under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant said it was important women and their families understand how common technology could be weaponised.

“As this survey acknowledges, tech companies and device manufacturers should take responsibility for the misuse of their services and products and improve their responses to misuse,” Ms Inman Grant said.

“New provisions in the Online Safety Act to combat serious adult cyber abuse, including cyberstalking, will give us enhanced powers to protect women and their children from abusive partners. 

“eSafety also has a range of innovative online tools for women, is providing training of thousands of frontline workers and has developed the world-leading Safety by Design initiative which is providing guidance and assessment tools for online companies to mitigate their risks and embed safeguards into their products at the front end.”

In the latest Budget the Morrison Government committed $3 million over four years (2021-22 to 2024-25) to provide targeted support for children experiencing technology-facilitated abuse, and this builds on the $4 million already invested for the Office of the eSafety Commissioner to assist women to report technology-facilitated abuse and keep themselves and their children safe online.

This research is expected to continue until the end of the current National Plan in June 2022. Stages II and III of this research project will include a nationally representative survey that will examine victimisation and perpetration experiences of technology-facilitated abuse, as well as interviews with victims and perpetrators of technology-facilitated abuse.