sue watling

Digital Gander, Digital Abuse, the dark side of the net

This week I rediscovered my feminist roots. Behind Closed Doors was a student led Conference at the University of Lincoln which tackled the subject of domestic abuse. With colleague Jim Rogers, I ran a workshop looking at Digital Danger: the dark side of the net. Jim and I co-authored Social Work in a Digital Society a book examining the impact of the internet on higher education and health and social care professions, in particular those involving social exclusion and disempowerment. For me digital literacies have to include identity and inclusion but now I’m thinking they need another element – awareness of digital abuse.

Preparing the presentation was a consciousness raising experience. So far I’ve escaped serious digital danger but I’ve been lucky. For many, the insidiousness of internet connections offers new tools for exercising power and control. Think before you Tweet is the least of it. Online there are no walls, no doors, no boundaries, nowhere to hide. Text messages, social media statuses, emails, photographs and video are all ways to hurt vulnerable victims, sometimes with fatal consequences. Whatever you call it, cyberbullying, stalking, harassment, it’s when the fun stops and the hating begins.

Stop Cyberbullying

Stolen identity, threats, blackmail, rumours, abusive comments, inappropriate images – the permutations are endless. Myself and colleagues talk to students about the difference between personal and public online identities but digital abuse frequents private places as much as open ones. In 2011 the Guardian claimed Cyberstalking by strangers was ‘now more common’ than face-to-face stalking but it’s frighteningly common from ex partners – with or without a history of domestic violence.    

Digital Stalking: a guide to technology risks for victims by Jennifer Perry is a free publication downloadable from Women’s Aid who have other supporting resources about staying safe online. Twitter and Facebook offer advice about online safety. The Digital Stalking website has a range of free materials to help victims of digital abuse.

The internet is a virtual mirror, reflecting the good, the bad and the ugly. Free from traditional boundaries of time and place, it’s the most powerful communication and information tool ever, with infinite capacity for supporting the darker aspects of human nature. What it means to be digitally literate should encompass the affordance for evil every bit as much as the positives. Staying safe online is fast becoming the most important literacy of  all.

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