As domestic abuse victims move online for support, abusers can follow

Social services providing online help amid pandemic need to be aware of how technology can be used and misused, argues U of A researcher

Social service providers must be more alert to the role of social media and communications technology in domestic abuse, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new commentary co-written by a University of Alberta graduate student.

Since the pandemic began, social service providers have been aiding their clients online as some shelters and other services have had to limit in-person access.

Wendy Aujla
Wendy Aujla

The shift to online help has been necessary and useful, said U of A sociology PhD candidate Wendy Aujla, but if providers “don’t have an understanding of how technology can be misused, it’s not helpful for them or the person they’re trying to serve.”

While victims of abuse can use technology such as social media and Zoom calls to signal imminent danger to family, friends and service providers, abusers can use those same tools to monitor the conversations and movements of their victims, said Aujla.

“Even with cellphones, an abuser can actually monitor your individual text messages,” she said. At the same time, a gaming app can be used by victims to report abuse by sending out a coded message to those who can help. And Snapchat will soon offer a resource within the app to support victims.

The impact of technology-based social services during the pandemic won’t be fully understood for some time, said Aujla, but “the importance of a symbiotic relationship between service providers and technology has never been more apparent.”

“A well co-ordinated domestic violence disaster-response protocol must include technology,” said Aujla, who published her commentary in Archives of Sexual Behaviour with co-authors Danielle Slakoff, an assistant professor in the Division of Criminal Justice at California State University, and Eva PenzeyMoog of Chicago’s Inclusive Safety Project.

“While technological and electronic resources are recommended, the complexity of safely offering online services is a major concern. As technology advances, service providers must continue refining their emergency protocols,” said Aujla.

‘Shadow pandemic’

Media reports of a spike in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic have been alarming, prompting the United Nations to call it a “shadow pandemic.” As early as March, the New York Times revealed that reports of domestic violence had nearly doubled since cities went into lockdown.

In April, The Guardian reported that the U.K.’s largest domestic charity, Refuge, had seen a 700 per cent increase in calls to its helpline in a single day. And the Globe and Mail reported last month that calls to helplines from women experiencing violence at home dramatically increased since the onset of the pandemic last spring.

It’s a situation that requires far more media scrutiny and government intervention, but those numbers don’t tell the whole story, said Aujla, adding that the media often oversimplify a complex interplay of circumstances.

“The media frame stories to show domestic violence on the rise, but it has always been on the rise, and it’s not just because of COVID,” she said.

“We need to be careful not to say that COVID is the (sole) cause of domestic violence right now.”

What can be done

The media, and public education campaigns, could help mitigate abuse by shedding more light on “coercive control,” said Aujla, defined as “a (usually male) perpetrator’s abusive pattern of behaviour—including violence, intimidation, threats, isolation and controlling tactics—that has negative long-term impacts on victims (usually women).”

During a pandemic, abusers may intensify such control by “minimizing or monitoring victims’ communication with friends and family; depriving victims of their basic needs; withholding information about the virus and public health measures; and restricting access to the Internet, medications and personal hygiene products such as masks, gloves, cleaning supplies, hand soap and sanitizer.”

Many Canadian service providers have done their best to adapt to the pandemic, said Aujla, especially in Alberta.

“They did a really good job coming up with interim guidelines and protocols, and making those protocols available online.”

She pointed to a public awareness toolkit by the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters promoting their online services and safety planning with victims of abuse. For example, a victim may signal for help with the use of code phrases such as, “We’re out of milk” over a Zoom call or social media when in trouble.

The council also warns women on its website, “Do not underestimate your partner,” pointing out that phone calls and messages can leave tracks. The site also has a “quick exit” button allowing a woman under threat to instantly leave the site should she need to hide what she’s doing.

Aujla also praised the federal government’s announcement to provide $50 million for shelters and other organizations providing support and services for those experiencing gender-based violence.

“We hope to see these funding programs continue after the COVID-19 crisis fades from the headlines and hope citizens will hold elected leaders accountable if they fail to do so,” she said.

| By Geoff McMaster

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s online publication Folio, a Troy Media content provider partner.

© Troy Media


social services, abuse, pandemic

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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