The Dark Side of Cyber Monitoring a Partner

The role of digital surveillance in abusive relationships

Posted Sep 02, 2019

Digital Surveillance and Domestic Violence

As a career prosecutor, I have handled domestic violence cases for over two decades.  What has evolved over that time is not the prevalence of abuse—but the manner in which it is pursued.  Technology has created the opportunity for abusers to terrorize their victims from anywhere, creating an environment of omnipresent control. 

Technology is also used to monitor the movements, conversations, and activities of partners—with or without their consent.  This method of creating psychological control is particularly damaging within relationships where the parties have different levels of familiarity with technology. Tech savvy abusers exploit this lack of knowledge and proficiency.  

Some abusers “request” consent to share their partner´s email or social media accounts, or access their cell phone records or voice mailbox.  Particularly within relationships that already contain elements of unhealthy levels of control and power imbalance, even if they are not yet physically abusive, such boundary probing can be very destructive. Such “consent” is rarely given willingly, and handing over passwords under coercive circumstances creates a dynamic of fear and anxiety for victims who know an explosive partner is only looking for material to use to create allegations of impropriety.  

Other abusers don´t bother asking for permission; they proactively hack into a partner´s email, phone, or social media accounts in order to conduct clandestine surveillance.  

In both scenarios, within abusive relationships, cyber monitoring by abusers can be addictive and dangerous. It often prompts negative emotions, which lead to arguments, which can lead to violence.  According to research, this is increasingly likely when adding problem use of alcohol.

Alcohol-Fueled Cyber Monitoring

 Image by Анастасия Гепп from Pixabay
Source: Image by Анастасия Гепп from Pixabay

Megan J. Brem et al. (2019) explored the interaction of cyberabuse and alcohol problems on intimate partner violence (IPV).[i]Investigating men arrested for domestic violence, they examined concept of cyber monitoring, one of the facets of cyber abuse.  Specifically, they examined whether IPV risk is higher for men with alcohol problems who frequently engage in cyber monitoring of their partners.

Using a sample of 216 men who were arrested for domestic violence and referred by a court to batterer intervention programs, Brem et al. found that 81% of the men admitted committing at least one act of cyber abuse within the year before entering the programs.  Regarding the impact of alcohol, they found that problems with alcohol and both physical and psychological IPV were linked at high, but not low, levels of cyber monitoring of a partner.

Brem et al. report that their results suggest that cyber monitoring may possibly be an instigatory cue among men arrested for domestic violence. They note that their findings corroborate and expand the conceptualized relationship between problem alcohol use and IPV.  They note that alcohol is a well-established predictor of IPV due to its role as a disinhibitor and myopic effect, that when combined with what the authors term an “instigator cue” which creates negative affect, increases the risk of violence.  They make the important observation that without such cues, the risk of alcohol-fueled IPV is lower.  

Other research corroborates the fact that negative affect is linked with IPV. Brem et al. note that cyber monitoring is linked with various negative emotional states including conflict and jealousy. Accordingly, they suggest that cyber monitoring might uncover data that functions as an instigatory cue that prompts aggression when paired with problem drinking.

Digital Disengagement

When cyber monitoring is being used as a weapon, one of the goals in supporting victims is to facilitate disengagement from the abuser while maintaining digital connection with those who can provide help and support.  This usually entails changing passwords, screen names, or even closing down social media accounts.  But many victims use their digital connections to remain connected to their support system, which can be a very important component in recovering from an abusive relationship.  

Delanie Woodlock et al. (2019) recognize Digital Coercive Control (DCC) as an emerging issue for service providers who assist domestic violence victims.[ii] They recognize the dilemma of helping keep victims safe from DCC, yet also enabling them to use technology to stay connected to their support systems.Anyone providing assistance to such victims should attempt to maintain this balance as well.  

Modern IPV survivors have to disengage from their abuser both physically and digitally.  The goal is to promote methods of using technology in ways that are helpful, not harmful, and can assist victims to extricate themselves from a relationship of remote monitoring, and set them on the road to recovery.


[i]Brem, Meagan J., Autumn Rae Florimbio, Hannah Grigorian, Caitlin Wolford-Clevenger, JoAnna Elmquist, Ryan C. Shorey, Emily F. Rothman, Jeff R. Temple, and Gregory L. Stuart. 2019. “Cyber Abuse among Men Arrested for Domestic Violence: Cyber Monitoring Moderates the Relationship between Alcohol Problems and Intimate Partner Violence.” Psychology of Violence 9 (4): 410–18.

[ii]Woodlock, Delanie, Mandy McKenzie, Deborah Western, and Bridget Harris. 2019. “Technology as a Weapon in Domestic Violence: Responding to Digital Coercive Control.” Australian Social Work.