Tech-related abuse may seem like a relatively new phenomenon in the world of violence against women. After all, it has only been in the past ten or so years that location tracking apps have become commonplace and that smartphones have enabled us to constantly be in touch with each other.
But this does not mean that tech-related abuse is any less serious, or that it develops in a bubble. Such behaviours as constitute tech-related abuse are key features of all controlling relationships. Abusers will use any means possible and convenient to wield control over their victims. Mobile technology has allowed abusers to have a greater insight into their victims’ lives and place a greater hold over them remotely. In some ways, this has allowed abuse to slip under the radar. Where an abuser may have clearly been preventing their victim from leaving the house in an era before mobile technology, now that abuser may permit a victim to leave but will monitor their location at all times, harassing and threatening them about it on a regular basis.
This means that for many victims, the abuse they experience will take place hidden from the wider world. They will be harassed in their text messages, stalked on their social media. And no-one around them may realise. We often have significant divides between our in-person and online lives; these divides can be exploited by an abuser to control a victim in an oppressive and overwhelming way that is not picked up by others.
So what are some of the features of tech-based abuse?
Social media intrusion
Social media as a concept is quite a strange thing. We tend to share our lives and thoughts with more people than ever as a result of using social media platforms. While there are always options for privacy (and to simply not post), there is always the possibility that you can be tagged in things or mentioned by other people.
One aspect of tech-related abuse is when an abusive partner closely monitors a victim’s social media, often interrogating them about any social media activity or changes to their profiles. Many abusers will gain the trust of their victim to the extent where the victim hands over their social media passwords; this then allows an abuser to monitor the communications the victim has with other people. This prevents victims from using their social media to seek help and support, and social media turns into yet another arena which facilitates abusive behaviour.
Social media also facilitates an always-on connectedness with people around us. You can often see when someone is ‘active’ on many social media apps and platforms. For abusers, this presents an opportunity for them to be constantly in contact with their victim – and to accuse them of being neglectful when they don’t respond.
Advancements in social media have made us always available and always out-there – and this is a new norm that it is often difficult for victims to exempt themselves from.
Monitoring and tracking
The rise of location monitoring and tracking apps has allowed abusers to have unprecedented access to their victims’ whereabouts in a manner that is subtle and often difficult to detect for outside observers.
Apps like Find my Friends and even Google’s location-sharing options mean that many victims can never escape the watchful eye of their abuser.
What is perhaps most troubling about this kind of abuse is that location-tracking apps have been completely normalised; many people use them simply to keep up with their friends’ and family’s whereabouts as and when they need to. And yet in the hands of an abuser, such apps become incredibly and subtly dangerous. Because many people use these apps as part of normal life, victims may believe they are being over-sensitive if they feel smothered by how their partner monitors them on the app. They may be convinced into believing their partner’s behaviour is normal. As with any new phenomenon, it is difficult for society to work out what ‘normal’ behaviour is when it comes to tracking apps. For victims struggling to find that norm, they may simply accept that their partner’s behaviour is okay and that it is something they ought to be able to deal with.
Security additions for houses can also be problematic. Many houses have CCTV cameras outside as a deterrent to burglars. Many of these cameras can be monitored from anywhere by using a mobile app. However, this also means that an abusive partner can observe if and when their victim leaves the house. This can essentially confine the victim in the house and make it impossible for them to leave and seek help.
Tech-based harassment and threats
An abuser can make a victim very vulnerable by threatening to share personal information about them online. This may include intimate photos or texts. With viral moments easy to come by, many victims feel that they have no option but to comply with their abuser’s demands because of the pressure they are under.
While sexting and sharing intimate images with one’s partner is a common feature of many modern-day relationships, in the hands of an abuser such images become keys to blackmail.
One key thing to note with tech-based abuse (like many forms of manipulation) is it often stems from situations or actions which could quite reasonably be deemed ‘normal’. As we as a society have normalised the encroachment of tech upon our lives, so the boundaries of what kind of intrusions we are prepared to accept have shifted. Unfortunately, for many victims of domestic violence, these intrusions can be highly damaging and even fatal.