Across the four databases searched, a total of 389 studies were identified; 127 duplicates were removed, resulting in 262 studies screened. Screening at the title and abstract level resulted in the exclusion of 182 studies. There were 80 studies screened at the full-text stage, with 74 studies being excluded – the majority (60) for wrong study design. In total, 6 studies were included from the search of databases and 1 study was included from hand-searching, for a total of 7 included studies (see Fig. 1 for PRISMA diagram). Reference lists of systematic reviews, scoping reviews, and literature reviews that were found through the search of databases were also checked to ensure all relevant studies had been screened. This process did not identify any new studies.

Fig. 1
figure1

PRISMA flowchart of study selection process

Table 3 provides a summary of the included studies and Table 4 provides a summary of the apps featured in the included studies. Of the seven studies included, four were qualitative [2, 11, 44, 64], two were mixed-methods [10, 32], and one was a formative evaluation [52]. However, only qualitative results from all studies were charted, extracted, and synthesized. All studies used interviews or focus groups to collect qualitative data. The majority (6) of included studies were conducted in the United States [2, 10, 11, 32, 44, 52], with only one study conducted in Australia [64]. All included studies were published in 2013 or later. Most of the included studies’ samples (4 studies) were comprised of college women [2, 10, 11, 44]. The remaining three studies recruited any women who self-reported experiencing sexualized violence [32, 52, 64]. The Gilmore et al. [32] study was the only study to report one participant who identified as neither female nor male. The Blayney et al. [10] study was the only study to report the sexual orientation of participants; the sample was comprised almost entirely of heterosexual women. Although Lindsay et al. [44] did not disclose the sexual orientation of participants, they did report that nearly 16% of their sample, which was entirely female, were in past relationships with abusive females. Five studies reported the ethno-racial makeup of their participants, and all of these studies were comprised of a majority Caucasian/White sample [2, 10, 11, 32, 44]. The included studies explored a variety of apps and focused on different aspects of sexualized violence: three studies focused on dating violence [2, 11, 44], with one study specifically focusing on same-sex dating violence [11]; one study focused on sexual victimization [10]; one study focused on sexual assault [32]; and three studies focused on intimate partner violence [44, 52, 64].

Table 3 Summary of Included Studies
Table 4 Description of Safety Apps in Included Studies

Narrative Summary of Themes

Using thematic analysis, three themes emerged that impacted women’s experiences of using sexualized violence safety apps: (1) security; (2) accessibility; and (3) knowledge. Recommendations and barriers found in relation to each theme are presented as subthemes. Table 5 offers a summary of each theme.

Table 5 Summary of the Themes

Security

Security was found to be a prevalent theme across studies that influenced women’s experiences of using safety apps [2, 10, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. Specific aspects of security that were discussed included privacy, judgement, and stigma. All of the studies identified that using safety apps to obtain information provided more privacy or anonymity than obtaining information from in-person health services [2, 10, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. Using a safety app was also found to provide additional privacy because individuals could access them discreetly and apps were designed to be ambiguous to other; for example, using basic colours that would not be recognized as a sexualized violence related app by another person who might see the individual’s phone [32, 52, 64].

Four studies noted that participants experienced a greater sense of security because they faced less judgement regarding being a victim of sexualized violence and, therefore, avoided stigma when using a safety app [11, 32, 44, 64]. Using a safety app was found to be more objective and unbiased than accessing traditional health services or speaking with friends and family [32, 44, 64], and five of the seven studies acknowledged that individuals found it was easier to interact with an app than having to discuss their situation with health professionals or their social network [2, 11, 32, 44, 64]. Women perceived less stigma about having experienced sexualized violence as a result of using these apps [11, 32, 44, 64]. For example, one participant identified:

With suicide already being stigmatized the way it is, and communication about suicide being the way it is, I would want to know that like, it’s okay to talk about this and it’s okay if this is what you’re feeling like ([32], p. 10).

Many participants mentioned the option of not having to discuss sexualized violence in a traditional way such as “face-to-face” as a benefit [2, 11, 32, 44, 64]. One participant noted, “it [app] gives you a privacy and accessibility . . . the fact that I don’t have to go to Student Health Center to get help and not have to worry about being judged” ([2], p. 276). Another participant discussed the benefit of accessing help via an app instead of going to a counseling center on campus, noting: “I feel judged to go . . . just knowing that I’m going to see them every day since I live there [on campus] I would feel a little uncomfortable” ([2], p. 276). Interestingly, several studies identified that it would be beneficial to be able to engage with others through the app [44, 52, 64], stating that “the option of … being able to maybe correspond with people anonymously, especially if you’re scared of being judged or found out … that’d be really good” ([64], p. 205).

Barriers and recommendations

The greatest barrier that emerged in relation to security was privacy, including the potential for partner monitoring or surveillance which may limit use of the app [11, 32, 44, 64]. For example, one participant commented: “If somebody’s in a relationship that is abusive, and someone’s already checking their phone and checking everything they’re doing, and they have an app about this on their phone, it might cause issues” ([44], p. 382). Recommendations to address privacy concerns, some of which were already part of the apps studied, included providing password protection for the app [2, 44, 52, 64], an emergency exit on each screen [11, 52], use of an innocuous name for the app that does not refer to relationships or safety [2, 11, 44, 52, 64], and even allowing the user to rename the program or change the icon themselves [11].

Bloom et al. [11] suggested the ability for users to print or e-mail the contents of the app to themselves or another person and then delete the app or the answers as a useful alternative. This would circumvent the need for the resources on the app to be exclusively on a computer or smartphone [11]. Other studies specifically recommended educating users about healthy relationship boundaries regarding technology and sharing passwords with partners and friends to better instruct users how to hide the app (e.g., bury the app in smartphone folders), and how to safely use the app if a partner monitors their phone [11, 44]. Women who reviewed the Circle of 6 (Co6) app specifically identified being uncomfortable with the group messaging feature, which is customized to send messages to only select individuals that you identify as your “circle of 6” [10].

Accessibility

The importance of accessibility emerged as a key theme that influenced experiences that women had when using sexualized violence safety apps. Accessibility included the ease and usefulness of the safety apps [2, 10, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. Women in all studies reported that they found the safety apps to be user friendly, easy to use, and easily accessible [2, 10, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. In six studies, the usefulness of the app was directly related to the fact that it could be used anywhere, was comprehensive in content, and all the information needed was in one place [2, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. For example, one participant commented:

It helps you organize your mind because when you’re in the situation, you don’t really know how to feel … there’s so much going on, you don’t really know how to categorize things. When [the app does] it for you, it just helps you put yourself in order, and have more control on your life. When something’s happening to you like that, you feel like you’re out of control and you can’t—you don’t know where to go. You don’t know what to do. You’re just so confused, so I think it helps ([44], p. 378).

In many studies, participants found that the app could be customized or personalized to the specific user, which improved its accessibility and overall usability [2, 10, 44]. Examples of personalized or customized content included safety planning suggestions [2], messages that will be sent to friends [10], and what information is presented, such as a specific risk assessment and safety plan for the user [44]. Overall, most studies found that the accessibility of safety apps had the potential to improve safety and decrease risk [10, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64].

Barriers and recommendations

Several studies noted suggestions to improve the accessibility of sexualized violence safety apps. Making the apps more personalized and interactive was recommended by women in five studies [10, 11, 44, 52, 64]. Examples included providing written scripts to choose from [10, 11, 32] or the ability to connect directly with a counsellor through the app [44, 52, 64]. Other recommendations included making the navigation functions standard across the app and clearly indicating the purpose of each icon [32]. Celebrity endorsement was also suggested as a way to promote sexualized violence safety apps, which in turn would increase a sense of accessibility for more women [64].

Alhusen et al. [2] noted that if individuals are not ready to address the violence, then the app may be unnecessary and useless. One participant noted “If they’re not ready they’re not ready… don’t talk about them behind their back and don’t talk about them with others [on an app] ([2], p. 276)”. Further, women in the Blayney et al. [10] study noted the app had limited contexts for use and did not provide anything more than a mobile phone could offer, seeing the app as unnecessary. Feedback included:

It just generally seemed like you could do the same things without the app, because iPhones nowadays are so intricate. Like, you could click details on your messages and press ‘send location’ and type a short message. I feel like that wouldn’t take nearly as long as opening the app, clicking the button, sending the messages… It’s not really an easy way to contact friends, I think personally for me, it would just be easier to call or text them. Like it wasn’t any easier to do that [use the app] ([10], p. 771).

Knowledge

Six studies discussed the importance of knowledge in the experiences of women when using sexualized violence safety apps [2, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. How women experienced the knowledge provided on the safety apps was dependent on the information provided, and if the information increased awareness, validation, and myth debunking. In all six studies, participants found the safety apps to be helpful in raising awareness of sexualized violence and recognizing violent behaviour through various ways such as myth debunking [2, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. Additionally, six studies found the apps to be an easy way to acquire information that validated women’s experiences of violence and indicated that participants found the app provided assurance that they are not alone [10, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64].

Further, six studies found that women believed the apps to contain relevant information that was credible, evidence based, and/or trauma informed [2, 11, 32, 44, 52, 64]. In relation to providing knowledgeable and credible information, one participant commented:

I liked the concrete advice…it didn’t just say “talk to your friend”— rather “here are five different things you can say.” I feel like everyone knows you have to talk to the person, but people don’t know what to say and how to say it ([2], p. 274).

Similarly, another participant commented that the app “arms you with ideas as to how to go about it [conversations] properly” ([2]; p. 276).

The information, options, choices, and safety planning strategies provided on the safety apps were also found to increase a feeling of empowerment [2, 11, 44, 64]. For example, one participant commented: “[A young woman] should feel relieved. Like she is equipped to know what to do, and not lost and drowning her sorrows and burden by herself. Like someone is there to help her” ([64] p. 209).

Barriers and recommendations

Several studies noted recommendations for improving the knowledge provided on sexualized violence safety apps. Several women thought that personal anecdotes, rather than statistics about dating violence, might better help young women recognize the violence in their own relationships [11, 52]. Gilmore et al. [32] and Lindsay et al. [44] found that some young women noted the desire for more information throughout the app about emotional abuse, as illustrated by the following participant: “It would be really cool if there was more stuff about emotional abuse and control because I think that is also really important” ([44], p. 383). Survivors thought information about what the police can and cannot do to assist the survivor would also be helpful because “talking to police can be kinda scary” ([44], p. 383). Last, several studies believed that sexualized violence safety apps should do more than just provide information [11, 32, 44, 64]. In addition to providing information, the safety apps need to expand the ability to gain knowledge by including information for appropriate resources [11, 32, 64] and incorporating further educational modules and learning opportunities [11, 32].

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