Online harassment and abuse from men towards women has increased since the pandemic lockdowns.
Front-line support service workers have told researchers at Monash University that the COVID pandemic has led to more referrals for technology-facilitated abuse.
Young women and girls have had their devices and accounts hacked, been sent abusive texts, stalked on social media and coerced into nude or sexual content.
The survey released on Wednesday found that women were more likely to be victims of cyber harassment, especially those under 34. The most common behaviours experienced by the victims were insults and harassing messages, unwanted contact, constricted access to digital avenues or threats of harm via online platforms.
Most of the perpetrators were found to be boys or men up to 34-years old, and most often a former intimate partner.
The report was led by researchers at Monash University for Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) — an initiative of Australia’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022 (‘The National Plan‘).
ANROWS was established by the federal government to apply evidence for policy and practice addressing violence against women and children in Australia.
Associate Professor Asher Flynn, a Professor of Criminology and Vice President of the Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology, led the team at Monash University, where they examined the prevalence of technology-facilitated abuse in Australia.
According to the report, domestic and family violence support services reported an “overwhelming” increase in referrals “due to clients being pushed into crisis situations while also being trapped in the home with their abuser due to lockdown requirements”.
“Many workers reported not knowing when a safe time would be to call, knowing that clients were stuck at home with their abuser or that the abuser’s movements were less predictable,” the report claimed.
“This was, primarily because, in their view, people were sitting around in lockdown with more time on their hands, more time online,” she continued. “So there were increased opportunities for hacking, monitoring or spying, or abusive, harassing messages.”
Associate Professor Flynn indicated the difficulty face by support services and law enforcement due to the rapid pace of change in technology.
“One of the key issues that we’re starting to see emerge is around AI-facilitated abuse, so there are these tools available that can do things like create a naked image of anyone,” she added.
“You can upload an image of a person online and it’ll digitally remove their clothing and look like a nude image, then that can be used for any purpose.”
Social services staff at Hobart’s Sexual Assault Support Service were among the many to be surveyed in the report.
Renae Pepper, a Tasmania-based psychologist who works with clients aged up to 17, said children under twelve comprised a total of 14 percent of all technology-related abuse referrals, while those aged between 13 to 17 made up roughly 60 percent of referrals.
“So much connection with young people happens online, and it’s difficult for parents to supervise and keep track of that,” Dr Pepper told the ABC.
The report claimed that support service workers were hoping for more training and professional development in responding to technology-facilitated abuse.
Jill Maxwell, the chief executive of Sexual Assault Support Service, agreed that referrals relating to technology-fuelled abuse were increasing of late.
“It’s an area we’re all grappling with at the moment, and looking at ways we can firstly educate our community and educate ourselves in how we respond to victim-survivors when they reach out for support,” she told the ABC.
If you need support or more information, please contact 1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732 or Lifeline: 131 114. Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36, Headspace on 1800 650 890 and QLife on 1800 184 527