How can I support a woman who is experiencing technology abuse?
Technology abuse, sometimes called electronic abuse or online harassment, is a common tactic used by many abusers. It often takes the form of stalking and, as an advocate, keeping this in mind will help you support your clients.
An Australian survey conducted with VAW service providers in 2016 found that 82% of their clients were stalked by partners or ex-partners via mobile phones and social media. The researchers also surveyed women and learned that more than half (56%) of those experiencing online stalking did not seek help.
As you know, stalking is a pattern of behaviour directed at one person by another that aims to harass, intimidate, shame, frighten and isolate. Many forms of it are against the law, and it is called criminal harassment in the criminal law system.
Stalking criminalizes otherwise legal behaviour when it causes or is intended to cause fear in the victim. Typically, the behaviour is repeated. In the case of technology abuse that could be numerous texts, emails, Facebook messages or phone calls. However, depending on the relationship history, the abuser may only have to send one message to the woman telling her that he knows where she has been, what she is planning or who she has been in contact with to cause her to be afraid. This “unspoken language” between people who know one another well can be very difficult to convey to law enforcement and judges.
Sometimes, a woman may not recognize that she is being criminally harassed. The stalker’s behaviour may have become normalized to her over time. Possibly it began gradually or, when it first started, she enjoyed the attention and was not threatened by it. Stalking is also presented as acceptable romantic behaviour in our culture so, although a woman may feel threatened by a man’s actions, she may be convinced that his behaviour is normal and it is her reaction that is wrong.
Women in the Australian study also reported being too embarrassed or ashamed about the abuse to report it. Sometimes women participated in similar behaviour at some point in the relationship, so they felt had little right to complain about their partners’ behaviour even when it made them fearful.
Name the abuse
You may need to help a woman recognize or admit that she is experiencing technology abuse. As you learn about her experience with the abuser, ask her about the abuser’s use of technology. Complete our Identifying Technology Abuse Chart together to get a clearer picture. The completed chart will indicate her level of fear and inform her safety plan. It will also help identify his high-risk behaviours. Strongly urge her to involve police under these circumstances.
Safety plan for technology abuse
Because technology affects many aspects of most people’s lives, every woman’s safety plan should include some strategies related to technology abuse, even if she has not experienced much of this form of violence. If an abuser uses technology a great deal to monitor and harass the woman, her tech safety plan must receive special attention. Consider contacting police or other experts for support.
The underlying principles of technology safety planning are no different than those of “regular” safety planning. If you are not comfortable with technology yourself, use our Technology Safety Planning Principles as a guide.
See our Tech Safety Toolkit for more suggestions on how to identify and manage various forms of tech abuse.
Guide evidence collection
Online abuse leaves a trail of evidence that can be used against an abuser. For example, in Menchella v Menchella, 2012 ONSC 6304, Madam Justice McGee granted a woman exclusive possession of the matrimonial home in part due to the abusive texts sent to the woman by her ex-partner.
To support women in collecting evidence:
- Share Do’s & Don’ts of Collecting Evidence of Technology Abuse and Documentation Tips.
- Learn about the specific electronic evidence collection requirements in your jurisdiction as these vary.
- Police are sometimes well informed on evidence collection techniques. However, they may seize a woman’s electronic communication devices., so you should prepare her for this possibility
- Encourage women to create documentation logs. Remind them not to include personal reactions to abusive behaviour in the log.
- Do not keep or look after evidence for women as this could make you a witness if there is a criminal case, requiring you to provide all your records to the defence/abuser.
- Remind women that their online activities can also be used against them.