In the digital age, online activity can be a conduit for abusive behaviours. But secure digital tools can also offer a lifeline for victims.
It’s no secret that New Zealand has a family violence epidemic, with one third of women physically or sexually assaulted by a partner over their lifetimes. Police respond to a family violence episode every 3 minutes – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as 87% of all family violence is never reported to police, according to a recent Violence Against Women study. So where are those 87% of victims, and what is getting in the way of getting help?
Family violence encompasses a lot more than individual physical or sexual assaults. These are almost always part of a pattern of behaviour aimed at gaining control and power over a partner (usually a woman) to bind them to the relationship. “You don’t generally get punched in the face on a first date”, says Dr Natalie Thorburn, principal policy advisor at Women’s Refuge. She explains that abusers tend to first set up the relationship dynamic so their victims have less options for help or support before they even use violence against them for the first time. “It begins with isolating the victim and restricting what they do, who they talk to, and what options they have outside the relationship”, says Thorburn. “The more an abusive partner isolates their victim, the more confident they feel about hurting them and getting away with it”.
The rise of smartphones and other digital technology offers perpetrators a host of new ways to monitor and restrict what their victims can do and who they can communicate with – making it difficult for some of them to find any viable way of seeking help. Women’s Refuge likens it to being “kept on a digital leash”. Thorburn adds that “that kind of controlling behaviour isn’t new; it’s always been a tactic that abusers have used. But the digital age means the tools that abusers use to do that are now more efficient and have a lot more reach over victims’ lives”.
During Covid-19 lockdowns, family violence organisations around the world, including Women’s Refuge, raised concerns about how women could reach out for support without access to privacy – either in the physical world or the digital one. Many of these organisations advocated for the use of secure and digitally private spaces as alternative pathways to support, such as Shielded Site, which offers real-time communication with victims without leaving a digital footprint.
In Aotearoa, one promising solution is the development of apps like Bright Sky NZ. Originating in the UK and released here in partnership between Te Rourou, Vodafone Aotearoa Foundation and the Ministry of Social Development, the Bright Sky NZ app aims to provide safe, practical and confidential information for victims of family violence, or those concerned for someone else’s safety.
Sinead Kirwan, spokesperson for the Vodafone Aotearoa Foundation, said that the Foundation was keen to support the Bright Sky kaupapa. “We have a vision of an Aotearoa New Zealand where all young people have access to the resources and support they need to thrive. Ensuring young people have safe environments to grow is an important part of this equation.”
But accessibility is far from the only barrier to seeking help – myths about what family violence is or isn’t get in the way too. “If your partner convinces you that his aggression is your fault, and tells you that in dozens of different ways over and over again, of course you start believing it”, says Thorburn. “But without a way to put those experiences in that family violence context, it can be hard to find the language to make sense of it for yourself, let alone to explain it to anyone else”.
In her time at Women’s Refuge, she’s noticed that for many women, kanohi ki te kanohi (face-to-face) conversations, or even korero over the phone, can be a daunting prospect. “Women who come to us often say they knew something wasn’t OK, they knew it was violent, but that finding the words, saying them out loud, taking that leap of faith that someone will respond well… it can all get a bit much”. Thorburn also points out that young people, in particular, no longer see phoning an organisation to find out more about something as an intuitive or “normal” way of solving problems. “Young people are digital natives – they’re far more likely to tap into online spaces or digital apps for information, so we need to have support options that meet them where they’re at”.
Bright Sky NZ includes features such as a quick-dial button to call police, a means for victims to store information or evidence of their experiences of violence over time, and information about different forms of abuse. The benefits of having easily accessible information extend beyond victims themselves, for example by enabling people concerned about their loved ones to tap into the expert-approved information on the app and understand more about how they can help.
Women’s Refuge sees the app and information it contains as a vital resource, especially as people sometimes have trouble naming non-physical forms of abuse as violence, which carry their own forms of stigma and are not always obvious to others. Thorburn says that these behaviours may go unrecognised because “we’re so used to seeing aspects of people’s lives documented online, and often we don’t think twice about what might be going on behind the scenes”.
These coercive behaviours often go hand-in-hand with other types of violence, and might include economic abuse or intimate partner stalking, especially through technology. She gives the example of everyday location-tracking apps, which can be used to monitor and control victims. Thorburn says abusers may also insist on being given the passwords to their partners’ devices, which may be a way to digitally isolate them by restricting any opportunities to talk to others. Smart devices may also be used to intimidate, manipulate, and coerce partners remotely, and there’s even the risk that an abuser could access sensitive information like health records.
Women’s Refuge believes that since abuse methods often involve technology, technology must also be a part of combating abuse. Some providers are doing “amazing stuff” in this space, says Thorburn, referring to the safety features of Bright Sky NZ. “But we will always be here to push them.” The goal is a world where all digital spaces are designed with safety for victims as a priority.