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Domestic abuse in the digital age
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The recent hacking of personal files of media figures such as Jennifer Lawrence and the subsequent exploitation of these celebrities has renewed attention on online privacy issues. - photo by istockphoto.com

 

The recent hacking of personal files of media figures such as Jennifer Lawrence and the subsequent exploitation of these celebrities has renewed attention on online privacy issues.

Celebrity-themed cyber harassment stories receive worldwide attention, but a less-discussed and disturbing side of cyber abuse impacts ordinary people who endure this form of sexual exploitation and emotional assault, most often from intimate partners. Advocates such as the The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a prominent nonprofit organization, believe that these new terrifying digital components of interpersonal abuse require attention, and that preventing the emotional and psychological effects of domestic abuse requires addressing the cyber component of such assaults.

In August 2014, New York state expanded the definition of “revenge porn,” an emerging form of domestic abuse in which former or current partners post sexually explicit images of a significant other online. The amendment made the crime punishable by fines and jail time, after adding another category of images to the law that are prohibited from being posted online without the individual’s consent.

The UK has also started to tackle the issue directly. Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service recently proposed harsher measures, in some cases prison sentences of up to 14 years.

Another more familiar form of cyber abuse is known as cyberstalking. This occurs when the attacker harasses the victim via electronic communication, and at times tracks their victim, unawares, by GPS on the individual’s phone, tablet or other electronic device. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report January 2009, one in four victims of stalking reported some form of cyber stalking such as email (83 percent) or instant messaging (35 percent) and one in 13 victims reported stalkers using electronic devices to intrude into their lives.

The digital age has enabled revolutionary forms of social and personal connection; however, it has also engineered profligate ways to perpetuate interpersonal abuse and domestic violence, given that data travels across state and international boundaries at a relentless pace. In a recent 2014 National Survey, 67 percent of victims said that they knew their online harasser and 72 percent of these cyber abuse victims were under the age of 35.

“Technology-assisted abuse allows an abuser even further into a victim’s everyday life without them even being present,” said Elizabeth Watson of Utah’s statewide Domestic Violence Hotline. “This can have a huge psychological impact on a victim and make them feel that they can never escape. It can isolate them from friends and family if they feel unable to continue using social media or email to communicate.”

Considering that the millennial generation spend approximately 18 hours engaged daily with media platforms, from Facebook to checking email, according to data arranged by Statista, it is not hard to see how real-life abuse has gone online, resulting in lasting repercussions.

Watson concluded with this advice, “One key message to someone who is concerned that they are the victim of technology-assisted abuse is to trust their instincts. Often this abuse can be subtle and many people think that an abuser would have to be very tech savvy to manipulate technology to stalk them or get their personal info. Unfortunately, this is not the case.”

Jennifer Lawrence, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, called the cyber abuse she experienced a “sex crime.” The young actress is onto something -- the world lives in a digital age, and lawmakers may soon treat cyber harassment with the same gravitas that other forms of abuse are given.