Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

     "My main concern is my safety, because if he sends the wrong sex-crazed maniac to my house … and he forces his way in, who knows what could happen?"

In a recent story published by CBC News, an Edmonton woman described the terror resulting from a bizarre harassment campaign launched by an ex-boyfriend. Over four evenings, the woman was visited by more than 30 men, all of whom were drawn in by a series of fake profiles placed with online singles sites. The men who attempted to gain entrance to her home all report responding to proposed sexual meetups, apparently orchestrated anonymously. The ex, whom the victim described as a "very, very abusive man," had reportedly threatened to send men to her house if she didn't "do the right thing" and end the emergency restraining order she had taken out against him. Edmonton police are investigating the case, and the online site, Plentyoffish.com, is actively cooperating.

Cyberbullying and similar forms of online harassment have become more common in domestic abuse cases. More abusers are using anonymous postings to harass partners who might otherwise be protected by restraining orders. (Not that such restraining orders necessarily provide sufficient protection for the estimated 10 million American women victimized by a domestic partner each year.)

Research into cyber abuse in the context of domestic violence is scarce, but the few studies done to date suggest that abusive partners are using these technologies in disturbing ways, including online harassment with threats of physical or sexual violence and the use of cyber monitoring to track a partner's movements and activities.   

And then there is the role that alcohol often plays in domestic abuse. According to the alcohol myopia theory, excessive alcohol can lead to a narrowing of perceptual and cognitive functioning, and a corresponding impairment of judgment. For domestic abusers, drinking can aggravate existing psychological issues such as paranoia about infidelity, as well as reduce their inhibition towards violence. This makes them more likely to respond aggressively when faced with situations that can provoke anger or hostility (not that it takes much to provoke an abuser who is sufficiently motivated). 

All of this can lead to a vicious cycle of paranoia and anger as abusers use technology to track and harass partners, often while under the influence of alcohol. Since most adults have smartphones and use social networking apps, online monitoring and abuse is easier than ever. Abusive partners can also take advantage of the anonymous nature of the Internet to humiliate or harass partners, often knowing that friends and family will be forced to bear witness as well.  

A study recently published in the journal Psychology of Violence takes a comprehensive look at the prevalence of cyber abuse among men convicted of domestic violence. A team of researchers led by Meagan J. Burns of the University of Tennessee examined 216 men convicted of domestic abuse in Rhode Island and sentenced to batterer intervention programs (BIPs) between 2014 and 2015. On agreeing to participate in the study, each participant completed a series of structured questionnaires measuring the following factors:

  • Cyber abuse and monitoring: A specialized self-report inventory measuring different aspects of cyber abuse or monitoring was used, as well as whether the respondent was a victim or an abuser. Items included: “sent threatening texts to partner,” "made threatening cell calls to partner," "checked social network page to monitor partner,” “checked sent/received email histories," etc. Possible total scores for both cyber-abuse perpetration and victimization ranged from 0 to 36.
  • Interpersonal violence history: Based on their scores on the Psychological Aggression and Physical Assault subscales of the Revised Conflict Tactics Scales, participants were rated in terms of how frequently they abused their partner, as well as the nature of the abuse.  
  • Alcohol abuse: All participants completed the Alcohol Abuse/Dependence Disorder subscale of the Psychiatric Diagnostic Screening Questionnaire to assess alcohol problems during the 12 months leading up to the beginning of the study.  

Results showed that over 90 percent of participants admitted to carrying out at least one act of psychological aggression toward a partner during the previous 12 months, while 59 percent admitted to at least one act of physical aggression. As for cyber abuse, over 80 percent of participants admitted to carrying out some form of cyber stalking or abuse in the previous 12 months. Interestingly, the percentage of participants reporting having been victimized by cyber abuse over the same period was almost the same.  

Examples of cyber abuse included checking a partner's cell phone call history, sending threatening emails or online messages, making threatening calls, monitoring partners on social media pages, sending an excessive number of texts or online messages, using GPS to monitor a partner's location, and threatening to post embarrassing photos online. More technologically savvy participants admitted to using webcams, spyware, and hidden cameras to monitor partners.

By combining the joint contributions of cyber abuse and alcohol abuse into a single prediction model, Burns and her colleagues found evidence of a two-way interaction effect in predicting domestic abuse: In other words, participants with a history of alcohol problems who admitted to frequent use of cyber monitoring and abuse showed a high risk for physical violence aimed at their partners.

While the role that alcohol plays in domestic violence is well established, it also appears to make potential abusers more prone to paranoia, including relying on online technology to monitor what partners are doing. Given the myopia often seen with alcohol, this also means making them more likely to respond aggressively to any perceived wrongdoing by an ex.

And what do these research results suggest? Although previous studies looking at cyber abuse have largely focused on adolescent dating violence, we can see that cyber monitoring and intimidation can be used by domestic abusers of all ages. As technology becomes more sophisticated, abusers will find new ways to exert control over past or present partners. In countries where women's freedoms are already severely constrained, we see more signs of electronic monitoring to prevent "wayward behavior," something that may well spread as it becomes easier to use.  

Cherish your privacy and take whatever steps are needed to prevent yourself from becoming a victim. You never know who might be watching.

References

Brem, M. J., Florimbio, A. R., Grigorian, H., Wolford-Clevenger, C., Elmquist, J., Shorey, R. C., Rothman, E. F., Temple, J. R., & Stuart, G. L. (2017, May 25). Cyber Abuse Among Men Arrested for Domestic Violence: Cyber Monitoring Moderates the Relationship Between Alcohol Problems and Intimate Partner Violence. Psychology of Violence. Advance online publication. 

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