Since the beginning of the pandemic, most of us have become more reliant on technology than ever before, whether that is to communicate with family and friends, participate in work meetings or virtual social events, order groceries, do our banking or – recently – file court documents and participate in remote court hearings.
This plays into the hands of many abusers, who simply add tech abuse to their list of tactics for controlling and intimidating their former partner.
Now, as we are slowly admitting to ourselves that we are likely to be living this way for quite some time, seems like a good opportunity to revisit the topic of tech abuse, which I have written about here before; this time focusing on how children in the family can become the unwitting pawns of a father who is using technology to maintain his power and control over his former partner.
When a toy becomes a weapon
When my children were young, we engaged in regular family tussles about whether or not certain kinds of toys were appropriate. Barbie dolls, for instance, were on the no-go list because of the misogynist images of women’s bodies they exemplified (except for those that snuck into the house as gifts from grandparents). Water guns, GI Joe action figures and many other toys were forbidden because we did not believe the kids should have toys that glorified violence.
Now, with our increased use of technology and greater awareness and understanding of family violence, we see a different relationship between toys and violence: when an abusive father gives a child a gift of a stuffed toy, say, in which he has embedded a nanny cam, or a tablet or cell phone on which he has installed a GPS or other monitoring device, some of which can be turned into listening devices. Toys are turned into weapons of surveillance, intimidation and abuse, with the child the unwitting messenger carrying said weapon.
Lots of parents visit with their kids on Skype, Zoom or other electronic platforms. This can be very positive if a parent has to be away for a long period of time and wants to continue to feel involved in the child’s life. My partner and I have used these platforms to visit with grandchildren during our time away each winter and, depending on everyone’s mood, these visits can be much richer than a phone call.
If separated parents live far apart, electronic visits can help keep the non-primary parent closely connected with the children, supplementing the in-person visits that take place during school breaks.
But, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been more online visits than ever, because supervised access centres, which allow a parent to spend time in a safe, supervised setting with their children, have been closed. In many cases, the court, the parents’ lawyers or the parents themselves have replaced in-person supervised visits with electronic visits.
When the parent visiting with the child this way is abusive, challenges can arise and safety of the child and mother can be compromised. Through the video, the abuser can see the child’s surroundings, which he may be able to identify. If not, he may ask the child to take him on a tour of the home or other location where the child is.
If the abuser uses his own video conferencing account, he can record the visit with the child. If he can’t record it, he can take pictures of the screen without anyone on the other side of the conversation knowing.
Even if the father does not have access himself, but his parents do, he can be in the room while the visit between the child and grandparents happens or they can record the visit, thus allowing the father to have access to information he is not supposed to have.
There are myriad other ways that an abuser can take advantage of the opportunities presented by technology to turn his relationship with his children into a means to spy on, follow or otherwise interfere with the mother’s life.
An abuser may ask children to text him photos of themselves or what they are doing or have access to kids’ photos on social media; photos that might contain information that the father is not supposed to have about where the children (and their mother) are living or what they (and their mother) are up to. An innocent (to the child) photo of a vacation activity can let the abuser know exactly where his ex-partner and the children are. Geotagging can happen either when the child takes the photo or can be attached after.
As kids get older, they post a lot of information and images to their social media accounts which can, inadvertently from the child’s perspective, allow the abuser to monitor the family’s whereabouts and activities.
If, as is common in many families, the internet and phone service accounts are in the father’s name, he can see the services used, numbers called and times of calls, etc. , allowing him to gather a lot of information about what the mother and children are.
What to do
Even if the focus of the abuser’s activities may appear to be the children, as in the examples above, it is not. It is his former partner that the abuser seeks to surveil, harass, intimidate and control, and he is using technology and the children to do this.
Any woman who is or thinks she might be dealing with tech abuse should take immediate steps to protect herself. The sooner she can change passwords to all her tech devices, the better. If possible, she should open new accounts for herself to ensure the abuser does not have access to this information. She should also keep a written record of any tech activity that is unusual or suspicious. Depending on the circumstances, her partner’s or former partner’s actions may constitute a criminal offence, and any evidence she can gather and record will be helpful if she decides to call the police.
To learn more about tech abuse, women (or their family and friends) can check out FamilyCourtandBeyond.ca, developed by Luke’s Place, which provides a wide range of information for women leaving abusive relationships. For information specifically about and strategies for managing tech abuse, the organization has created a Toolkit, which is available online.
And all of us should be vigilant about the many ways in which technology, helpful in so many ways, especially as we continue to live, work and play in physically distanced ways, can also be a weapon when in the hands of an abuser.