08/24/2011 11:49 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2011

The Role of Mobile Apps in the Fight Against Intimate Partner Violence

As new technologies transform and revolutionize how we process and retrieve information, experts in the field of intimate partner violence (IPV) explore the use of technology as a means for improving survivor protection and for the advancement of IPV education. Becky's Fund is a national non-profit organization, based in D.C., seeking to increase public awareness about IPV. Because one out of every four women will experience violence from an intimate partner in her lifetime, Becky's Fund understands the importance of developing safe and effective methods for using various forms of technology in the fight against IPV. For instance, new smartphone apps like Guardly use the latest technologies and offer premium safety to users. Although technologies certainly come with dangers and limitations, they can also be used to empower survivors of IPV and to educate students vulnerable to dating violence about this prevalent and critical issue.

Dating violence on college campuses continues to reach staggering levels. One in three college students admits to either experiencing or perpetrating dating violence in their relationship, and at least one fifth of undergraduates in the United States report being physically abused by their partner. This statistic does not include incidences of psychological abuse between college dating partners which, according to several studies, accounts for the majority of IPV cases involving young people. Most post-secondary institutions fail to address dating violence and for those that do, research done on the effectiveness of college IPV prevention programs found that existing approaches have a limited impact on youth.

Information about IPV must be made available to young people in forms they can easily access. With books becoming antiquated relics of the past, many of today's youth rely on their smartphones and new forms of media such as infographics, twitter streams and blogs to acquire new sources of information to meet their everyday needs. For this reason, we need to use technological resources to educate young people about IPV, especially as dating violence continues to be a big problem among college students.

It's rare for today's youth not to have access to an iPhone, Android or Blackberry device. Becky's Fund, along with several other organizations, sees the benefits of making use of expanding technologies to reach young people today. The Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence has already developed a phone app meant to educate teens about healthy relationships, and organizations like SAFE Ireland, a group protecting women and children in the UK, have developed apps offering information for survivors and for their support networks.

Becky's Fund understands and recognizes the dangers associated with using technology when trying to leave an abuser. There have been a number of privacy concerns raised about certain online websites and applications. For example, cookies and images from certain websites will remain on computers for extended periods of time, which can make traces of your internet browsing history available to hackers. Mobile phones can be used by abusers to harass their partners and can allow them to easily monitor the location of a partner. While there can be potential dangers associated with technology, there are also a number of benefits. Making use of these tools is vital in order to reach large audiences, particularly technology-savvy college students and other young people in desperate need of IPV education and resources. Still, it is important to know how to make use of these quickly expanding technologies in safe ways. For this reason, organizations like the Safety Net Project of the National Network to End Domestic Violence offer a number of technology safety tips for survivors and for organizations providing IPV related services. It is vital to remember that IPV smart phone apps are not life-saving tools, but rather educational resources for individuals facing dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations.

Guardly is a mobile app for smartphones that can help students and others faced with dating violence, abusive relationships or a simple desire to feel safe when walking alone at night. Guardly empowers its users by providing one-touch access to their safety network. Simply launching Guardly on a smartphone will instantly identify a user's location and alert family, friends, campus security (at schools that have joined its Safe Campus Program) and 9-1-1 that they are having an emergency. Beyond simple notifications, Guardly instantly connects users to their contacts through conference call, instant messaging and real-time location tracking. Built-in security features include the ability to snap and share pictures of an assailant and sounding a loud whistle. Privacy is extremely important to Guardly and its mobile app will only track location data during an emergency incident. Because of the widespread reach of dating violence at post-secondary institutions, students should have tools at their disposal to easily access security services on their campus. Guardly's service is available on iPhone, BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices (coming soon to Android) and provides students with the necessary tools to more adequately protect themselves.

In a study conducted in collaboration with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), researchers identified technological resources as possibly vital additions to domestic violence services and recommended further research in this area. Researchers evaluated the WSCADV's "Technology Safety Project" with favorable results, and suggested that when accompanied with education about technology safety, technology services for IPV can be both safe and valuable.

Today's youth depend on technology for information. Reaching them requires using tools like smartphones and social media sites. However, because of the dangers associated with using certain technologies, students and other users, need to understand how to use these resources safely. Becky's Fund understands the importance of having easily accessible resources for all and hopes that with the safe use of these new technologies, we can prevent future incidents of intimate partner violence from occurring.

Authored by Becky Lee, Executive Director of Becky's Fund and Valerie Martin, Research and Development Intern for Becky's Fund.

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