Technology is increasingly enabling former intimate partners to track and stalk women.

A new study of frontline support workers found they are in “urgent need” of better training and resources to help fight this technology-facilitated abuse (TFA) that is keeping victims “hypervigilant and fearful”.

Almost 60 per cent of the 338 social workers participating in the study – conducted by Monash University and funded by Australian’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) – said they had counselled victims who had been pursued by perpetrators using constant phone calls, messages, GPS tracking, and social-media monitoring.

A similar percentage had their access to a telephone, mobile phone, or the Internet controlled – one of many forms of TFA, a form of abuse in which perpetrators leverage digital or online communications to track and control victims.

Most victims of TFA are women aged up to 34 years or girls under 17 years old, with transgender, non-binary and intersex people also routinely singled out by perpetrators – who were, similarly, predominately boys or men up to 34 years old who were former intimate partners.

Perpetrators were peppering their victims with put-downs, insulting or harassing messages; posting images or personal information about victims online; using anonymous accounts to send threatening, abusive or harassing messages; and even using children’s toys to monitor their victims.

More than a third of respondents said they were working with victims whose abusers insisted they share passwords and provide access to their devices and online accounts – with a similar proportion reporting victims’ emails and social media accounts had been accessed without their consent.

Constant harassment via digital channels – which had, 55 per cent of respondents revealed, also been used to threaten physical assault – had made victims “hypervigilant and fearful, feeling as though the abuse would never end and they would never be able to escape,” said Dr Asher Flynn, an associate professor of criminology with Monash University who led the study.

Victims reported disabling social media accounts, changing phone numbers and staying away from technology that had made them feel unsafe in home, work, study and social situations.

“More needs to be done to improve the responsiveness of state and territory-based victims of technology-facilitated crime, particularly those with diverse backgrounds,” advised Flynn, calling TFA “an extended form of gendered violence” that was producing “significant impacts to victims’ mental wellbeing”.

Getting worse, not better

The study is only the latest in a series of investigations highlighting the frequency with which social media and other technologies are being tapped as facilitators of domestic abuse.

“The increase of technology-facilitated abuse in 2020 mirrors what we are hearing from our member services and frontline agencies supporting women across the country,” Karen Bentley, CEO of women’s support organisation WESNET, said in launching a recent TFA survey that found use of GPS trackers and video cameras increased by 245 per cent and 183 per cent, respectively, over the previous survey.

“Abusers are weaponising technology and using it to wield additional harms in conjunction with the more traditional forms of abuse we know.”

Mobile phones are used in 79 per cent of TFA cases and Facebook in 59 per cent, according to a December eSafety Commissioner report that also warned of the “real harm” that such behaviours have on children.

Some 27 per cent of domestic violence cases involve TFA targeted at children, that study found, with 67 per cent of cases affecting children’s mental health and 59 per cent affecting their everyday activities or relationship with the non-abusive parent.

While federal government efforts to address the issue had recently gathered momentum – the Online Safety Bill 2021 was introduced earlier this year to punish abusive digital behaviours and boost industry accountability for user safety – the new ANROWS figures suggest there is a long way to go.

Victims were reportedly encountering a range of frustrating factors, including TFA “not being taken seriously by police and courts” and in finding up-to-date information.

This echoed the findings of the Wesnet survey, which noted that “breaches in intervention orders made via technology were rarely enforced and not taken as seriously as physical abuse”.

Technology providers were also singled out for “inadequate responses” to TFA – something that Flynn, having been named this month as one of just 12 Global Women’s Safety Expert Advisors by Facebook, will address as the panel develops new policies, products and programs to better support women using Facebook.

The frequency with which TFA is being reported, Flynn said, highlights the “urgent need for training and resources directed to frontline support services.”