An Italian study could pave the way for greater access to domestic violence support as British Columbia continues to see high numbers of cases.
Google searches could be useful in predicting the number of domestic violence cases during periods of isolation, according to a new study.
Based in Italy, the study found a significant correlation between the number of calls to the Italian national helpline and the number of online searches using keywords, such as domestic violence or femicide.
The researchers used Google Trends to collect three different sets of anonymous Google search data between March 2013 and June 2020. Based on this data, the researchers suggest that tracking these searches could help predict potential threats of violence between intimate partners (IPV) before and during a crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Thanks to this new methodology, cases such as the 120% jump in calls that the Italian anti-violence helpline received during the first wave of COVID-19, according to the study, could be better predicted.
Selin Köksal, co-author and doctoral student in public policy at Bocconi University, said that at some point during Italy’s first lockdown, even women’s shelters had to close.
Right now, Köksal said the internet may be the only way for victims of domestic violence to seek help.
“In a situation where there is a public health crisis like the one we experienced during the pandemic, the relevance of Google searches actually increases,” she said.
The Power of the Internet
The Internet can be a powerful tool in times of crisis. According to the study, while reports of domestic violence often decrease during a crisis, online connectivity often increases.
It’s something that Angela Marie MacDougall, Executive Director of Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), is well aware of.
From early March 2020 to late March 2022, MacDougall said BWSS had responded to more than 100,000 service requests from Canadians.
With around 4,000 inquiries a month, Mr MacDougall said that was three times as many calls as BWSS had ever answered in 43 years of business.
In early 2020, MacDougall said his anti-violence organization began preparing for the effects of the impending lockdown on victims of domestic violence, after observing China’s experience with the same issue.
She said her organization had worked proactively to try to minimize the isolating effects of the pandemic as it spread across Canada.
“What we did in early March was start raising awareness of what was coming and trying to put resources in place for victims and survivors ahead of the lockdown and quarantine measures,” he said. she declared.
These resources included using the “power of the internet” to spread the word.
From social media campaigns to press articles to incorporating all the right keywords into their website so that it appears in Google searches, such as those analyzed in the Italian study.
“We kept [this campaigning] for months…and it was a game-changer,” MacDougall said. “It was necessary to draw attention to the problem. »
In April 2020, just after the pandemic began to spread across Canada, 26 women and girls were killed by violence in Canada, according to data from the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability. That month saw the highest number of deaths in 2020, up 10% from January 2020.
Striving to raise awareness of their services through radio, news, magazines and social media, MacDougall said BWSS tries to raise awareness of anyone who might need support.
“Whenever there was a story in the mainstream media [featuring BWSS]calls to our crisis line have increased,” MacDougall said.
MacDougall said BWSS has even tried to get cell phones into the hands of domestic abuse victims across British Columbia so they can access online resources.
Gaps in online services
However, even with organizations such as BWSS working tirelessly to reach people online, Köksal said there is a “digital divide” that can make it difficult for some populations to get help.
Köksal said the keywords seen in the study as predictors of an increase in phone support calls were primarily those typically used by people with a high degree of education.
“People with lower socio-economic status may use less targeted dialect or keywords, which could prevent them from accessing specific online resources to seek help,” Köksal said. .
To help bridge the gap, she said policymakers should promote internet and social media literacy in communities with lower socioeconomic status.
Implementation of solutions
While Köksal sees widespread internet literacy as a long-term solution, she said there’s another solution she’d like to see happen sooner.
In February, the National Domestic Violence Hotline in the United States partnered with Google. Now, whenever someone in the US Googles anything related to domestic violence, a box immediately appears at the top of their search results with contact information for the hotline.
Köksal said she hopes their study will encourage the implementation of this service internationally.
Even with the study’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, Köksal said the research they conducted before 2020 proves that the recommendations made in the study are still applicable.
“Even in times when there is no public health crisis…Google services are [providing the] the ability to understand the severity of domestic violence that occurs in this population,” she said.
In Canada, MacDougall said the number of service requests received by BWSS had plateaued, but the numbers were still higher than before the pandemic.
“The violence continues,” MacDougall said, noting that BWSS still operates its 24-hour helpline – an extensive service it began offering during the pandemic.
“We continue to have our foot, metaphorically, on the gas. We didn’t let go at all.
If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, help is available. You can call the Victim Safety Unit toll free at 1-800-563-0808 or one of the many resources for this. government list.