When domestic violence goes online - and kids get caught in the crossfire

What experts call "technology-facilitated domestic abuse" is on the rise across Australia, with worrying impacts for children.

Nine-year-old Vanessa was on a weekend visit to her dad’s new apartment, when he surprised her with a “secret smartphone.” 

“Mum doesn’t want you to have this, so let’s just keep it between us,” he said. 

He encouraged Vanessa to use it “to tell me whatever is going on at home …” She looked a little uncertain when he said that. Mum had been sad for a long time after Dad moved out. Now that she had a new partner she seemed so much happier. But the thought of sharing that made her tummy twist.

“I just want to make sure you’re safe,” he added.

What Dad didn’t tell Vanessa was that he’d also fitted the new phone with a GPS tracker. If he couldn’t control his ex-partner’s movements anymore, he could at least monitor them through his daughter. And then, if necessary, take action …

Vanessa’s dad saw his actions as a clever way of getting information about his ex-partner.

Cyber experts and social researchers see it differently. Behaviour like this, they say, is a form of technology-facilitated domestic abuse. And it’s on the rise throughout Australia. 

Research shows that 96% of the perpetrators of this kind of abuse are male, and 93% of victims are female.

Kids are "collateral damage"

But the middlemen in such cases are often children like Vanessa, who are used as conduits to their mothers’ private lives. And recent studies show the impact on those children’s mental health, education and relationships can be devastating. 

Children are involved in tech-based abuse in over a quarter of domestic violence cases, research shows.

Fathers giving children a device in order to monitor their mothers’ movements is an increasingly common tactic, having risen by some 350% since 2015, according to a national survey by women’s network WESNET.

Sometimes kids are directly abused online. More often, they are “collateral damage” in abuse that targets mothers.

Overall, children are involved in tech-based abuse in over a quarter of domestic violence cases, according to a recent study by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, the first research of its kind to specifically investigate how children are impacted by online domestic violence.

The research found this type of abuse escalated when couples separated and co-parenting arrangements provided opportunities to recruit children, openly or otherwise, as information sources. 

How kids are harmed

The impact on children, the study found, was damaging to their mental health in 67% of cases, hurt relationships with the non-abusive parent (59%) and disrupted their everyday activities (59%). 

Understandably, kids experienced both fear and guilt when put in a position of spying or informing on a parent, leading in extreme cases to social isolation, school absenteeism, depression and suicidal thoughts. 

While no simple solution to the problem of tech-assisted domestic abuse is possible, researchers point to the need for greater community awareness and increasing knowledge among caring professionals.

Providing older children with access to technology may also help to mitigate the problem.

Notes Karen Bentley, WESTNET chief executive,  "Technology is often blamed as the reason that this is happening. But at the end of the day, it's the abusers' behaviour."

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, esafety, digital parenting, technology-facilitated online abuse

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