When it comes to their relationship to technology, many campus-based survivor advocates and preventionists would probably say “it’s complicated.”
As someone who works for an education technology company, AND who has supported survivors of technology abuse, cyber-stalking, and harassment, I’ll confess to my own somewhat fraught relationship. After all, technology–including phones, tablets, computers, apps, and social networking website–can simultaneously be harnessed to increase safety for survivors and connect them to resources and hijacked by those who commit violence to harass, punish, isolate, or surveil a survivor. While many campus advocates have embraced and promoted the online resources offered by such organizations as the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s live chat, or the innovative online support groups for male survivors offered for 1 in 6, or have adopted or developed bystander apps such as Circle of 6, far fewer have included technology as a part of their on-campus advocacy.
As I have spoken with many survivor advocates across the country in the past year about their use of technology, what I have heard over and over again is that advocates agree that using technology would probably increase their ability to connect to survivors, and this makes sense. As 2016 research of communication habits on one campus illustrates, college students don’t call people to talk on the phone–only 2.2% use the phone as their primary means of communication. They also are much less likely to read email that comes from a university official who is NOT their faculty members. So, what do they use to communicate? No surprises here: social media (50.2%) and texting (35.2%). And yet, how do most campus advocates communicate with their clients? Email and the phone. Bluntly, as advocates, if we’re NOT using text or social media to communicate with our clients, we’re just not as likely to reach them. Period.
But I hear you. Remember that fraught relationship thing with technology that I mentioned earlier? Just thinking about using text messaging or social media with clients opens up a chasm of anxiety in my former advocate soul. What about confidentiality? What about down time? Would I always be on call? What about boundaries? Will my client become too dependent on me? How would texting possibly work without jeopardizing either an advocates’ or a survivors’ well-being?
To help answer this question, I reached out to Kara Fitzpatrick, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Campus Advocate for Crisis Services, a Buffalo based crisis center that has been responding to and educating around all forms of domestic, sexual and elder violence in Erie County, NY since 1968. While Kara works for Crisis Services, she is co-located on the campus at University at Buffalo and works closely with the Prevention Excellence Award winning Sexual Violence Prevention Program in their Wellness Education Services office. As a campus-based advocate, Kara has adopted a number of technology resources to better connect with her clients. When asked why she pursued using technology, Kara shared that using text and other forms of online communication was really, for her, about meeting her clients where they are. She noted that most of her clients are millennials (as she is as well) and that, for many, “there is something really intimidating about a phone call. It forms an unnecessary barrier.”
Kara pointed out that texting works well in a number of other ways for survivors. For example, she explained that because clients are more likely to respond to her texts, she is able to increase engagement with them–which can lead to forming closer relationships and facilitating critical trust-building that strengthens in-person interactions as well. Kara also pointed out that the text format can be particularly helpful for clients who are actively experiencing trauma because, as she notes, it can “give clients some space and time to process” incoming information–or to even decide when they’re ready to respond, versus simply declining the call and never calling back. Kara connects the ability for survivors to choose when to respond to a text message–in what context, at what time–to a trauma-informed framework that infuses all of her work with clients.
Kara offered a number of key considerations and strategies for advocates to consider in adding texting as a client communication tool to their advocacy shop box.
Lastly, Kara reminds me that survivor advocacy is fundamentally about supporting clients in their efforts to keep themselves safe–physically as well as emotionally. Texting is just another mode for achieving this fundamental goal.
If you’re interested in learning more strategies for positive uses of technology in prevention and response for intimate partner violence, check out this webinar co-hosted by Vector Solutions (formerly Everfi's Campus Prevention Network) and the National Domestic Violence Hotline.