The Role of Technology in Abusive Relationships

Technology is constantly advancing. Each year, we see new and improved “smart” devices that are meant to make our daily lives simpler. While technology has many benefits to users of all ages, let’s take a few moments to focus on how it could be used to gain power and control in relationships.

Research indicates that technology is commonly used to monitor, stalk, control or harass an intimate partner. We refer to this as digitally abusive behavior. These behaviors can occur when the perpetrator is in a different location.* But what does this look like?

With the technological advances over the last 10 years, tracking someone’s every move – without them knowing – is easier than you might think. First, let’s define spyware. Spyware is a downloadable software on a computer or mobile device where users can monitor information about someone’s internet browsing habits, emails, usernames and passwords, and personal information without their knowledge. To download spyware, physical access to that particular device is required.

How do I know if my mobile device or computer has spyware? Luckily, there are a few warning signs. Be on the lookout for unusual battery drain or a spike in data usage.

Next, let’s move on to a relatively new concept called the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT refers to devices connected to each other, and to a device or app that can control them. IoT devices can be connected through the Internet, Bluetooth or other means. Examples include home automation, connected health and medical devices, smart toys and location trackers.

We don’t want you to think that technology should be feared or avoided. As with many things, technology can be a powerful force for good, but it can also be misused. Let’s switch gears and focus on how technology and connectedness can be beneficial for domestic violence victims.

We know that it is typical for most victims to feel isolated, due to their partner’s abusive behaviors. A device can be an extremely helpful tool to enhance a victim’s safety and to re-gain the feeling of having a voice. Something that may seem obvious is using technology to help a victim file a complaint (or file for a protection order) against an abuser. Abusers will likely use more than face-to-face tactics to harass a victim. Having a device to screen shot emails, text messages or comments on social media – that includes dates and times – can be extremely effective and important for documentation.

As far as being a tool for victim’s safety, there are a variety of free apps that anyone can download. One of our favorites is Circle of 6 ( The app allows users to quickly communicate their safety needs with six trusted people. After initially choosing these six friends, users can send automated messages using quick icon buttons. It is important for the user to have Location Services turned on when using this app, as one of the features is a Pin icon, which sends a text to your circle asking them to come get you by providing your exact location. Other features include asking someone to call and provide an interruption if you’re in an uncomfortable situation, and direct access to national hotlines and information on relationships and safety.

Please remember that, as with any technology, there are benefits and risks for safety and privacy associated with smartphone apps. To increase privacy and safety for victims, we recommend turning off Location Services when the Circle of 6 app (or other free safety apps) is not being used. Additional free safety apps to consider downloading onto a safe device include bSafe, OnWatch and myPlan.

With increased awareness and safety planning, survivors can make their interconnected world more safe and secure. Someone who experiences digitally abusive behaviors isn’t alone – a call to a national hotline or reaching out to a knowledgeable advocate can help.

*(Burke, Wallen, Vail-Smith, & Knox, 2011; Melander, 2010)


Tech Safety’s Survivor Toolkit

National Stalking Resource Center

Where’s The Line?

Columbus Domestic Violence/Stalking Unit
(Franklin County, Ohio Residents)


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