I am passionate about encouraging positive and responsible engagement online, contributing to a culture where people can thrive.
The twenty-first century is commonly described as the digital or information age. In 2008, a Christian event, along with much academic research, was described as ‘revolutionary’.. Completely changing everything …
In 2015, in the Richard Dimbleby lecture, Martha Lane-Fox, formerly the UK government’s Digital Inclusion Champion, said, in a much shared quote, ‘The internet is the organising principle of our age, touching all our lives, every day. As the late activist Aaron Swartz put it, “It’s not OK not to understand the internet anymore”.’ Brief summary of development of ‘social media’ is 1994 recognised as when internet became something used by the general public, 2004 when social media became something, and now we’re onto the ‘internet of things’ where objects are embedded with sensors and ‘smart’ tech is increasingly interlinked and able to exchange information with each other (Fuchs, 2010).
There is no doubt that there have been profound changes in recent decades, although with a combination of continuous negative media stories and a feeling that ‘everything has changed’, there is a sense of panic surrounding the impact of digital technologies upon our contemporary culture… which leaves users either going online without knowing how to protect themselves, or staying offline altogether, but the more we can understand social media, the better we can use it and ‘enjoy the best’ whilst ‘avoiding the worst’. Undoubtedly, digital technology offers us new ways of doing things, both good and bad, but we are still dealing with basic human needs – for love and connection, and for power and control… Often what we see as negative technologically is down to the person using it. Although the technology may have given them more power to spread messages faster and more widely, it’s ultimately like giving someone a brick – they can choose to build a house with it, or throw it through a window. Often, when people speak about the digital, they talk about it as a ‘virtual’ space. It is more helpful to think in terms of online and offline, rather than ‘virtual’ and ‘real’: Online life is part of ‘real’ life – those who sought power and control in any other environment will also seek it in this ‘new’ environment…
In a digital age, as it ever was, abuse is about power and control, and technology adds some extra dimensions to what is going on online! Often we’ll find that something negative is counter-balanced by something positive that can balance out in some way: in a process known as ‘disinhibition’ users can have a sense of being invisible ‘behind the screen’, which can lead to irresponsible or illegal behaviour, but can also provide the anonymity necessary to encourage someone to engage with online support sites. That, however, is more about anonymous interaction, and clearly, most of the time the abuse happens from someone who is known, and an abuser’s intention is to frighten, upset or embarrass the victim, and technology gives a faster, cheaper, easier and longer reach. The ability to control and dominate someone via cyber-stalking is achieved by constant presence, or ‘gaslighting’ via multiple accounts. Unsurprisingly, as digital is a part of everyday life, in 98% of cases, abusers will use technology to further abuse the victim, including GPS or other software used to track from a distance in real time, including younger users who are huge users of technology.
Importance of not seeing ‘online’ as ‘virtual’ – then people seem to think different rules apply, but it’s a part of our whole lives/society, and should be treated as such… remembering ALWAYS that there is a human being on the other side of the screen (disinhibition) Source: http://www.interhacktives.com/2013/12/04/5th-hackney-debate-social-media-blessing-curse/
After gaining access to the victim’s digital content, either openly through demands/manipulation or secretly, the abuser will monitor all digital content Preventing their partner accessing help, contacting friends/family or using content to accuse their partner of having an affair. An abuser may also use Spyware to listen into their partner’s phone calls remotely or insist their partner uses Skype/Facetime as a remote CCTV for the abuser to hear and see all of their conversations. Natalie described a case she is aware of where a young man effectively used Skype as a personal CCTV service by insisting that his girlfriend keep it permanently switched on. Once content has been monitored, the abuser may insist their partner take specific action, such as deleting contacts, un-friending people on Facebook, or sending unkind messages to people. An abuser may also prevent their partner having access to digital content, by breaking or hiding devices, changing passwords or deleting messages/missed call logs.
Through GPS software on their partner’s digital devices (phone, car, tablet, watch, etc.) an abuser will monitor their partner’s location. An abuser may insist on their partner proving her location by sending photographs to the abuser or using video calling facilities on a device (e.g. Skype or Facetime). This also prevents their partner seeking help, connecting with family and friends and leaves them with no way of escaping.
During the relationship or once it has ended, an abuser may bombard their partner (or ex) with calls, texts, emails and/ or via social media messages. This may wear the victim down and leave them feeling exhausted. One of the biggest problems for women in particular is that they are often not believed when reporting cyber harassment, and perpetrators are able to make victims feel ‘crazy’. This has a huge impact upon their mental health, especially if they are unable to see where attacks are coming from (for example, when someone has infiltrated their computer or personal devices) and are unsure when it is going to stop. Alongside this, police officers are often ill-equipped to understand digital abuse, leading them to offer advice like ‘well, switch the location software off then’. The abuser may encourage other people to do this too (friends, family members or online contacts).
It has become the norm among young people for all passwords and pincodes to be shared as soon as the relationship begins, with a culture of mistrust until full access to a partner’s digital content is shared. The abuser may use financial details to run up debts or may even implicate the victim in criminal activity online. Throughout the relationship and once it has ended, digital content can be used as a weapon. An abuser may coerce or encourage their partner to pose for naked or sexual photos, then threaten to (or actually) post the images online (the legal term for this is ‘revenge porn’), not forgetting easy access to porn giving twisted views of what is ‘normal’. They may sign in to the victim’s social media accounts and pose as the victim, sending messages that either confuse or alienate the victim’s friends.
An abuser may use online sex sites to meet other people for sexual activity. May coerce or force their partner to sign up to group sex sites or disclose details of the victim’s sexual history. They may use sexual rating sites to rate the victim’s sexual performance. Children may not see those that they connect with online as the ‘stranger danger’ they have been warned about, especially if they believe the person at the other end to be a child, or if that person has been introduced electronically by a friend. As ever, sexual offenders often target children with particular characteristics, including children in the care of the state; children who have experienced prior maltreatment; emotionally immature children with learning or social difficulties and problems with peer friendships; love or attention deprived children; children with strong respect for adult status; children from single parent families; children who will co-operate for a desired reward (such as money, computer games); and, children with low self esteem. Natalie explains in her course that a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation may buy a smartphone for a young person, paying the bill or offering pay-as-you-go vouchers in exchange for sexual or other coerced activity, or as a way of building a relationship with the young person, which can then be exploited. The smartphone also serves as a way of controlling the young person, taking inappropriate images that can then easily be shared, or exposing them to unsuitable images. Legitimate chat sites and apps such as Skype are used for live-streaming child sex acts, using hard to-trace virtual currencies such as Bitcoin.
So that’s quite a miserable picture, but online, it is entirely possible for material to become ‘viral’, spreading fast among friends and connections online, both in raising awareness, and in help for a specific case… If you remember back to that ‘dress’ in 2015 (white and gold or black and blue), the Salvation Army in South Africa sought to piggy-back on a ‘viral’ story online, depicting a woman beaten ‘black and blue’. Originally this seemed like a powerful ‘quick win’, but watching Natalie talk about this online, it became clear that it was advertising agencies, rather than those with an understanding of the issues, who make such campaigns: too sexualised, and the the offender is invisible. When the majority of abuse is invisible (psychological, emotional, sexual, financial), with the advert only showing bruising, this could prevent victims identifying with the advert, creating another barrier to seeking help. *Also, had the agency ensured that they had enough support in place for any responses to the campaign? There is a real potential for good campaigns, but we need to be aware of the full message, the impact upon the audience, and think whether it’s truly about reducing violence against women, or about increasing likes/shares and minimising a challenging topic. DIFFICULT BALANCE…
So, a threat for some, but the internet makes it easier to share resources, openly, within secret groups, or as part of a password-protected package… so a real tool of empowerment. This may be difficult for the victim to access because of what we’ve seen above, but we need to be aware, so we can look out for signs (as will have been discussed elsewhere) – and see if we can access information, etc. on their behalf or provide a ‘burner’ phone? The more that those being subjected to abuse can maintain healthy external relationships, the more likely they are to be able to escape from an abusive partner (and for me, social media is all about communication/relationships).
Refuge centres have to be extra vigilant about staff and residents’ use of their own technology, as abusers are using GPS tracking on devices, or those of the victim’s children, to track down victims… but also The more positive sides of sharing online include the ability to keep logs of abusive materials and to obtain professional counselling online, which allows full control of what is being shared, offenders’ access to victims can be restricted (with expert help), and victims can be kept involved in any legal processes and connected with appropriate organisations.
Most people have an online identity, whether or not they have actively contributed online: it’s worth checking your name on Google and seeing what results are returned… or do this on behalf of a friend – and seek to ‘take back control’. It’s difficult once something is online to remove it, 2 main options: Flood online with other content, so that the information might disappear down in search Take the legal route – involving police and the social media companies to take information down (if it’s illegal offline, it’s illegal online) – which MIGHT bring more attention to it than desired. Think about your privacy settings – who can see your information, and what can they do with it? Simply search for ‘privacy settings’ on Google or the platform you’re using – they’re getting v good at providing info on this, but does require activity on your part. There is much inaccurate and alarmist information online, including on YouTube, so churches and other trusted organisations can play their part in providing good information, or directing those affected and their supporters to pre-existing content online, or offline organisations; mention within sermons, etc. ‘encouraging awareness of signs to look out for, confidence in steps to take, knowledge of support, and a listening ear for cries for help, while ensuring that practical provision is also clearly highlighted’. Those who are resilient offline are more likely to adapt well online, whereas those vulnerable offline are also more vulnerable online, and need extra support. Group spaces in which conversations about what is ‘normative’ are powerful, sharing stories, of case studies, actions that have helped, considering how individuals can be helped, including via Facebook ‘secret’ groups where users can discuss sensitive topics … Be aware that online forums such as those available on Mumsnet or via Women’s Aid, where users are advised to be careful with the information shared, assuming that it is public.
There’s the need for cultural change – and websites can help with this. Everyday Victim Blaming – seeks to change narrative in the media, changing the language in which women try to ‘avoid abuse’ and puts responsibility on men. No need for registration, just a ‘name’ (not necessarily ‘real’ – unlike Facebook which wants to tie to a real ID); Comments submitted to the site retain only the email and IP address of the computer used, and are held on a secure server. See the Triumph seeks to share empowering messages that people can overcome their abuse and create positive, non-violent lives, describing strategies that have worked for other survivors and promoting a positive view of survivors as courageous and resourceful. Project Unbreakable, in 2011, was a photography project that aimed to give a voice to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. Each person is pictured holding a hand-written sign indicating their feelings, or things they wish they had said or done – with faces hidden if desired. The founder was not a survivor herself, which caused issues with some, but she believed that she was using her skills to raise awareness. She noted that she was not qualified to give advice, but referred visitors to places that could help, and has left the site archive up, although unable to actively maintain it now. Deaf Hope is a site that offers specific help to the deaf community, and includes a quick escape key for users. Users should note that most web browsers do keep a record of sites visited, so it’s worth checking out options for private browsing, clearing the browser history, or using search sites such as DuckDuckGo, which allow anonymous surfing (though noting this is of benefit to both parties).
Online pressure comes in many forms, of which sexting is particularly prominent in many minds. A widely used definition of sexting is: ‘The act of sending sexually explicit messages or images, primarily between mobile phones.’ With easy access to mobile technology, images can speedily spread, with emotional, social and criminal consequences. Those who send these messages probably want desperately to fit in, to ‘prove’ they are ready for a relationship, and, being impulsive, don’t consider the consequences of their behaviour. The development of apps such as Snapchat has given the illusion of control, as the image ‘disappears’ after a few seconds, but users must understand that copies of it could be made, and are stored on servers on the way through. There is increasing social pressure to provide sexts, but in many ways it is simply the technological development of that old chestnut ‘If you loved me, you’d sleep with me’, with threats made that relationships will be broken off, or previous photos circulated, if photos are not provided. For those struggling to understand notions of sexual consent, sites such as ‘Pause, Play, Stop’ can help users through interactive material. The biggest danger point for sexted photos comes when a relationship ends, when photos may be shared in revenge. For every photo shared, work on the assumption that there is a good possibility it will not remain private. Once out in the public domain, it can quickly multiply and never be taken back. If you are a person in a position of leadership and receive a sexting image, you should remove it quickly – police can access a data trail in search of ‘proof’ as to what you did with the image – then take action.
One final set of vulnerable users I wanted to mention – children who have been fostered/adopted – like to look into this more, but this a group that particularly need to ensure that photos/details are not shared online. These children are already more vulnerable, and often have been rescued from difficult situations – so, as with all children, make good use of privacy settings, think about the kind of content you share (lots of information in the press recently re sharenting, possible legal contestation of what parents have shared) to protect particularly vulnerable users (who can also include:children in the care of the state; children who have experienced prior maltreatment; emotionally immature children with learning or social difficulties and problems with peer friendships; love or attention deprived children; children with strong respect for adult status; children from single parent families; children who will co-operate for a desired reward (such as money, computer games); and, children with low self esteem). Stanley, J. (2001) ‘Child abuse and the internet’, Australian Institute of Family Studies. Retrieved from: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/child-abuse-and-internet
Don’t put all the weight of expectation for solving the problem on the victim. There are a number of supporting bodies, official and unofficial – there’s a bit more about the wider picture from my chapter within here, and you’ll see more widely within the church.
.. And my other books!
Domestic Abuse in a Digital Age fo #OutOfControl
Dr Bex Lewis @drbexl
Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing
23 March 2019
Abuse in a Digital Age: Does social media help or hinder
in dealing with abuse?
#OutofControl #MeToo #ChurchToo
Event Publicity, 2008
“There is a revolution sweeping across the globe, driven by the
massive growth of the internet and internet related technologies.
Known as the Digital Revolution it is on par with other great global
shifts such as the Agrarian Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
And it is completely changing the landscape of how we
communicate, how we influence, how we relate. This isn’t simply
about coming to grips with a new technology to assist us in our
work, but requires of us a fundamental shift in our processes, our
structures and approaches. If we don’t respond then as Eric Hoffer
states, we will find ourselves, ‘beautifully equipped to deal with a
world that no longer exists.’
Martha Lane-Fox, 2015
The internet is the organising principle of
our age, touching all our lives, every day.
As the late activist Aaron Swartz put
it, “It’s not OK not to understand the
One of the dangers of seeing the digital
as ‘revolutionary’ is that we focus on
the technology, and forget that it is still
human beings using the technology.
•Basic human needs
• Love and connection
• Power and control
Image - https://unsplash.com/photos/AVtR-h28qmI
What is abuse in a digital age?
Domestic abuse can be defined as a pattern
of coercive or controlling behaviour enacted
by one person towards another: an abuser is
motivated by a desire to have power over
and control of their partner
“If we don’t like what social
media is presenting us [with],
we should look at society
instead, not just the tool they
Caroline Criado-Perez, 2013
5 Main ways abusers will use technology
• Accesses victim’s digital content (openly or
• Prevents their partner accessing help
• Accuses partner of having an affair based on
• Uses spyware to listen to phone calls remotely
• Uses Skype/Facetime as remote CCTV
• Forces particular actions
• May prevent access to devices or platforms
• GPS software on partner’s digital
• ‘Proving’ location via photograph
or live video
• Prevents connecting with
• Calls, texts, emails, social media
messages at all times of night/day
• From abuser and others (he)
Image source: https://unsplash.com/photos/GWkioAj5aB4
Misuse of information and content
• Sharing passwords/pincodes
• Financial misuse, including debt
• Digital content used as a weapon – e.g.
• Pose as the victim to alienate friends
Image purchased from Stockfresh
Online sexual abuse
• Use online sex sites to meet others
• Coerce partner to join sex sites
• Use sexual ratings of partner’s
• Targeting underage (vulnerable) children
• Smartphone given to child to build
relationship or coerce
• Livestreaming sex acts
• Using Bitcoin in payment
Image purchased from Stockfresh
“The fluidity and transience of online
environments poses challenges to
traditional authority structures, roles, and
tools. The result has been that the internet
is framed both as a threat to certain
established roles and hierarchies and as a
tool of empowerment by others.”
– Heidi Campbell 2012
• Extra vigilance – staff AND residents use of
• Can restrict offenders access to victims
(requires professional help)
• Also, access to computers:
• Keep logs of abusive materials
• Obtain professional counselling online
• Keep involved with legal processes
Image purchased from Stockfresh
• Check your ‘online identity’
• Manage privacy settings
• Share quality information – online and
• Online forums, e.g. MumsNet, Women’s Aid
@drbexlImage from https://unsplash.com/photos/gcgves5H_Ac