Police in the UK are failing to protect children and young people from the harrowing effects of parental cyberstalking, a leading academic has warned.
Dr Emma Katz is a UK domestic violence researcher at Liverpool Hope University, a specialist in coercive control and a Senior Lecturer in Childhood and Youth.
In new research she’s examined how coercive control perpetrators - predominantly male - stalk ex-partners in the digital world, using everything from social media to Whatsapp, following the breakdown of a relationship.
And Dr Katz says perpetrators are also using tech to stalk youngsters - yet children are not always being recognised as victims or given the support they need.
She argues: “Technology-facilitated abuse and stalking needs to be taken much more seriously as a crime. It’s part of a pattern of harmful behaviour which a perpetrator has typically been committing for years. This pattern of harmful behaviour will have been happening before the relationship ended, it’s probably why the relationship ended, and they’re still doing it post-separation.
“And through the use of things like social media, the victims of domestic abuse and stalking - both adults and children - are living in constant fear and are subjected to intrusive surveillance.
“Relationships with children are being weaponised by abusive fathers in order to continue their campaigns of abuse, and police forces need to be awake to the dangers.”
The new research - published in the Journal of Gender-Based Violence, sees Dr Katz and colleagues from the University of Lapland, Finland, analysing dozens of stalking cases dealt with by district courts in Finland between 2014 and 2017.
The researchers found stalkers used technology to be ‘omnipresent’, sparking ‘continual fear’ in both adult and child victims. The research uncovered cases where women had had their reputations demolished on social media by the perpetrator, while all the while presenting themselves as the ‘good’ father.
In seven cases it was mentioned that the perpetrator had installed spy software in a woman’s or child’s mobile phone, affixed a spy device to a woman’s car, or used or threatened to use GPS data in tracking the woman and, or, children.
Just eight of 139 cases dealt with in the Finnish courts comprised a female stalker and a male victim.
And, overall, the children were recognised by courts as an ‘injured party’ in only 13 of the 131 cases involving a male stalker.
The cyber harassment involved threats of violence and death, intrusive and obsessive fatherhood, as well as disparaging and insulting remarks about an ex-partner’s motherhood or womanhood.
The work concludes that, ‘children’s exposure and vulnerability to fathers’, or father figures’, technologically-facilitated stalking of their mothers must be more widely recognised. The study illustrates how fathers, or father figures’, use of technology in stalking positions children as both direct and indirect victims of stalking, and potential targets of homicide’.
While the study is centred on Finland, Dr Katz says the findings closely mirror the state of play here in the UK.
She adds: “Very few of the courts had actually recorded the children as ‘victims’ of the stalking alongside the mothers.
“And what we’re calling for is that when one parent is stalking the other, especially fathers stalking mothers, we need to stop and ask ourselves - ‘How are the children being affected by all of this, and what can we do to support and help them?’”
In the UK, stalking crimes are currently covered by the The Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, which sought to address fears among victims that stalking wasn’t being taken seriously by the criminal justice system.
A new Domestic Abuse Act 2021 is also set to be introduced imminently. The Act will, the Government says, emphasise the fact that domestic abuse ‘is not just physical violence’ and can also involve ‘emotional’, ‘controlling’, ‘coercive’, and ‘economic’ abuse.
But Dr Katz is worried that some police forces are simply not using the powers they already have when it comes to stalking - and giving them more might just paper over the cracks.
She points to the recent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) report into the epidemic of violence against women and girls (VAWG), and explains: “The report looked at police responses to crimes of violence against women, and one of the things found was that there’s a real postcode lottery when it comes to stalking.
“There are some police forces around the country who have issued just one or two stalking protection orders - when they should have issued thousands of them.
“Some police forces are also regularly choosing not to attach bail conditions to men who have recently beaten-up or sexually assaulted their partners or ex-partners. So it’s not necessarily about the police being given more power, it’s about the police not using the powers that they already have.
“Over and over again we see survivors go to the police to report these matters - such as a case where a father had riddled their child’s tablet with spyware during a contact visit so that the he could hear and see everything that’s happening in their ex-partner’s house - and been told that it’s just a civil matter and it’s not their job to get involved.
“To me, that’s a huge issue and one that needs to be addressed.”
Dr Katz is also adamant children should not be encouraged to simply leave social media in order to escape the ‘constant coercive and controlling abuse’.
She says: “We can’t simply tell children to ‘come off social media’ in order to end the stalking and abuse by a parent. It’d be like telling an adult, ‘If you don’t want to experience a car crash, never get in a car’. Instead we put laws in place to limit dangerous driving and punish it when it occurs.
“And for young people in particular, social media is a massive part of their lives. They’ve never lived in a world without social media. If they lose social media then they lose big parts of their friendship networks.
“It’s the people who are perpetrating the crimes who need their behaviours curbed. They’re the ones who need less freedom.”
And it’s not just police who need better awareness of technology-facilitated parental stalking - society in general needs to be more wise to the threat.
Dr Katz states: “One tactic of a stalker is to slander their ex, usually through social media, in order to make them look bad and to attack their reputation. Perpetrators will draw on gendered stereotypes about how a mum should be a ‘well behaved’ mum, perhaps criticising an ex partner for partying or drinking, for example.
“The accusations are likely to be entirely false yet it’s plausible to those on social media because that’s a common narrative around bad mothers - and we send our disapproval their way.
“As we’re doing that, we’re giving an abuser who has made false narratives more power. We’re sympathising with them and condemning a victim who’s probably done nothing wrong at all.”
Stalking is also not a ‘crime of passion’ - and popular culture’s depiction of romance isn’t helping here either.
Dr Katz claims: “If a woman was using technology to stalk a man because she was so passionately struck by him, she’d be considered unhinged.
“But when a man does it, there’s more of a narrative around ‘romance’. We’ve been told from a very young age that it’s a man’s job to pursue the woman. If the woman is reluctant, the man can be more persuasive until she sees the light and falls in love with him.
“Just look at Love, Actually - the actor Andrew Lincoln’s character turns up on Keira Knightley’s doorstep with placards declaring his undying love. If a woman did that to a man who was happily married she’d be heavily criticised.
“And what that character is doing in Love, Actually is just one or two steps away from stalking. When we normalise it at this low level, then we start to normalise it at higher levels of harm as well.
“It’s not romantic. Having someone invade your boundaries when you’ve told them, ‘no’, is incredibly frightening. You start to lose control over your own life.
“And when it comes to stalking, we have some idea how many victims there are, because of the victim reports (though these are likely to be underestimates), but we never flip it the other way around and ask, ‘how many people are behaving in these harmful ways? How many domestic abuse perpetrators and stalkers do we actually have in this country?”
** The research, Coercive control and technology-facilitated parental stalking in children’s and young people’s lives, was co-authored by Dr Anna Nikupeteri and Prof Merja Laitinen of the University of Lapland.