by Rachel Birnbaum, Ph.D.
The rapid increase in use of the virtual technology such as text messages, instant messaging, e-mail, social networking sites, Skype, FaceTime, and Webcams has enabled another form of parent-child contact post-separation. The increased use of virtual parent-child contact has also created a topic for discussion and debate about the risks and benefits of “virtual parenting” post- separation. Issues such as safety and vulnerability, the ability to use technology, privacy and confidentiality, are only some of the considerations for mediators and those involved in crafting parenting plans for families post-separation. Several states in the U.S. have enacted legislation to include virtual contact post-separation, and, in Canada, there has been a steady increase in the number of court orders that include some form of virtual parent-child contact.
Despite this growth, there remains little empirical research about whether and how virtual parent-child contact post-separation impacts children and their parents. This is particularly concerning when families are involved in high-conflict disputes (i.e. poor problem-solving, poor communication, lack trust with one another, mental health concerns) and when there are domestic violence concerns.
As a part of a broader research agenda examining children’s participation in separation and divorce matters, the author undertook two related studies exploring virtual technology as a means of parent-child contact post-separation. The first study surveyed 166 family justice professionals in a 37-item online survey. For purposes of this article, the author reports on two of the research questions: (1) what conflicts, if any, do adult and child clients report as a result of using any type of technology for parent-child contact; and, (2) what are the benefits and challenges that family justice professionals believe about the use of technology as a means of parent-child contact. The second study explored the views and experiences of virtual parent-child contact post-separation with 10 children and 7 parents (3 parents were paired with the children’s interviews) by telephone interview. While the sample is small in both studies, this is the only study that has explored multiple perspectives using multiple research approaches to learn more about virtual parent-child contact post-separation and, in particular, the views and experiences of children and parents.
Mental Health Professionals’ and Lawyers’ Survey Results
In total, there were 166 professionals surveyed online; 125 females and 30 males who were on average over 55 years of age (not all professionals identified their gender or age). Forty-eight percent identified themselves as a lawyer (including being a mediator and arbitrator); thirty-six percent identified as a social worker (including mediator, therapist), and 6 percent identified as a psychologist (including being a mediator, PC, and therapist). The remaining professionals identified themselves as managers of counseling agencies, facilitators of supervised access, probation workers, and family justice providers. All the lawyers and psychologists had over 20 years of experience, and the social workers had up to 5 years of experience in family justice. The lawyers reported their practices focused mainly on representing adult clients in parenting disputes, and twenty-nine percent dealt with child welfare disputes, seventeen percent represented child clients, with seventy-seven percent of the time and the remainder of their practice devoted to wills, estates, and real estate matters. Overall, the family justice professionals were highly experienced, spending a significant amount of time of their practices representing adult and child clients in family justice matters.
Parental Reports of the Types of Conflicts That Occur as a Result of Virtual Parent-Child Contact
All family justice professionals were asked to report how often their adult and child clients report conflicts over the use of Skype, FaceTime, etc. The parents reported that the majority of conflicts occur as a result of:
- The other parent listening in on the conversation with the child (60%);
- The child is not being available for the call at the designated time (41%);
- The other parent alleging that the child is busy doing something else at the designated time (35%); and,
- The other parent alleging that they do not know how to use or set up the technology (4%).
When asked to identify any other types of conflicts, parents reported conflicts over the costs of the use of technology and who pays for it, unique conflicts in rural areas where technology is unreliable or too expensive versus urban areas, using the time to harass the custodial parent, using the child to harass the non-custodial parent about child support and other inappropriate issues, and, some parents reported that they do not want their child using technology because of safety and confidentiality concerns.
Child clients reported that the majority of conflicts occur sometimes as a result of
- The child being busy and not always wanting to talk to the other parent at that time (55%),
- The child not having a lot to say to the other parent and the other parent gets upset (45%), and, The other parent they are with is listening to their conversation during parent-child contact time (39%).
When asked to identify any other types of conflicts raised by child clients, they reported that conflicts also occur over the non-residential parent asking the child questions about the residential parent, the parents arguing with one another during the call, and the non-residential parent not being available when the child calls. Conflicts reportedly also occur over the number of text messages, and over the child being subjected to inappropriate content, including both verbal and emotional abuse by the non-residential parent.
Family justice professionals were also asked to comment about the benefits and challenges of the use of online technology as a means of parent-child contact. Their views and experiences highlight a range of risks and rewards in using virtual parent-child contact. Below is a snapshot of some of the themes identified:
“Technology can be a valuable tool for facilitating communications and connections when used properly, while at the same time presenting a heightened risk when used improperly, and in an unsupervised manner, particularly for young and impressionable children who are caught-up in their parents’ conflict, deliberately or inadvertently.”
“Allows children more access to the non-residential parent. Can be intrusive for the residential parent.”
“Children are more committed to a visual connection, such as Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime, etc. As a result, contact is more likely, more frequent, longer, and more fulfilling,”
“The benefits are significant since the lack of physical presence can assist clients to calm down in high-conflict cases. At the same time, some clients incorrectly try to use the medium to set up traps for the other parent or engage in what they see is a strategic maneuver in litigation.”
“Benefit is increased interaction, even if the other parent resides far away, or if they are unable to have normal access (i.e. due to addiction, issues of safety); challenge is lack of privacy, and technology creates a trail of what may appear to be evidence (other parent listens, uses app to record the conversations).”
Views and Experiences of Children and Parents with Virtual Parent-Child Contact
Ten children (6 females and 4 males), ranging in age from 4 to twelve years, and 7 parents were interviewed (5 mothers and 2 fathers). Three of these parents were paired with the children’s interviews. All the children used either Skype or FaceTime with their non-residential parent. The parents had been separated between 2 and 5 years, and 8 of the children lived in the custody of their mother, 1 child was with the father, and one child was in a shared-care parenting arrangement. All parents had court-ordered or agreed upon virtual parent-child contact with the other parent.
Interviews with the parent raised both challenges and benefits about the use of virtual technology as a means of parent-child contact post-separation. The benefits of virtual parent-child contact clustered around two major themes: (1) It reduces conflict between the parents, and (2) It allows children to maintain parent-child relationships with both parents. The challenges clustered around three themes: (1) During parent-child contact time, the residential parent interferes with the non-residential parent; (2) There are concerns about safety (i.e. the non-residential parent has access into the residential parent’s home); and (3) There are concerns about privacy and confidentiality.
The children’s interviews also raised both challenges and benefits about the use of virtual technology as a means of parent-child contact post-separation. Children reported on four major themes: (1) Feelings of closeness to the non-residential parent and having reservations at the same time; (2) The residential parent interfering with child’s access time and the child’s privacy; (3) Longing for the non-residential parent; and (4) The non-residential parent not being available when the child calls.
This is the first study that draws upon multiple perspectives regarding the views and experiences of family justice professionals, as well as hearing from children and parents directly about their views and experiences with virtual technology as a means of parent-child contact. The findings raise a number of risks and benefits, from different perspectives, about virtual parent-child contact, at a time when virtual parent-child contact orders are being increasingly recommended by mediators and the court as a means of maintaining parent-child relationships post separation.
A number of concerns were highlighted from the perspective of parent reports to their lawyers about virtual parent-child contact. These were related to the other parent listening in on the conversation, as well as having to be responsible for making sure the child is available at the specified time. The greatest concerns expressed during the parent telephone interviews centered on safety, on feeling vulnerable during virtual parent-child contact, as well as on privacy issues. That is, parents raised concerns of being blocked from access to the technology being used by the non-residential parent and the child, invasion of privacy and feelings of being monitored (i.e. residential, as well as non-residential parent), and the unfettered virtual access to the residential parent’s home. This latter theme raises particular concerns for high-conflict parents and especially for those families where there may also be issues of domestic violence.
However, there also was a number of benefits highlighted in both the parental reports to their lawyers as well as in the parent interviews. The greatest benefit raised by each parent is the child being able to maintain an ongoing parental relationship, and that virtual parent-child contact can provide reduced hostilities between the parents, because they have no contact with one another other than organizing the call if the child requires adult assistance.
While it is important to hear the different perspectives (i.e. from children, parents, lawyers, and family justice professionals) about parent-child contact via virtual technology, it also demonstrates that more research is needed to clarify issues of cultural nuances, barriers to the use of technology (i.e. rural versus urban areas), and the relative burdens and cost (i.e. emotional and financial) to parents having to provide the technology, and, depending on the age of the child ,how much adult assistance is required to organize and make the child available at the designated time. It is equally important to examine the safety risks underlying the use of virtual communication tools ,especially when high-conflict cases and domestic violence are of concern.
Based on the results of this research and the paucity of other research about virtual parent-child contact, it is too early to make valid recommendations for practice and policy. However, this study should raise cautions and considerations for mediators when recommending virtual parent-child contact post-separation. For example, considerations should be given to:
- The child’s age and degree of adult assistance that is required to facilitate virtual parent-child contact;
- The level and degree of conflict between the parents;
- The level and degree of domestic violence concerns;
- The financial costs;
- Separating aspirational from practical and feasible parenting plans in recommending virtual parent-child contact;
- Exploring with children, where appropriate, what their views are about virtual parent-child contact before orders are made and agreed to; and,
- Including a mechanism to follow-up on whether and how virtual parent-child contact is working for children.
There also needs to be a discussion on unpacking some of the underlying assumptions about parenting via the virtual world—For example, what does “virtual parenting” mean to children and young people. As poignantly stated by one 12-year-old female:
“While it is great to see my dad, I want to feel him near me as well.”
And, another, 11-year-old male, said,
“…[virtual contact] is I can’t really see him in-person…..it’s sad, but good at the same time…”
Dr. Rachel Birnbaum is a Social Work Professor, cross-appointed between Childhood Studies (Interdisciplinary Programs) and Social Work at King’s University College, Western, London Ontario. She has written, presented and conducted research on many aspects of family justice issues, with a particular emphasis on children’s participation post-separation. She thanks the children, parents, and family justice professionals for their valuable time in sharing their views and experiences with virtual technology post separation. Dr. Birnbaum gratefully acknowledges the Social Sciences and Research Humanities Council in funding this important and timely research.