Social Media - for better, for worse?

Social Media - for better, for worse?

Social media is a phenomenon that cannot be ignored. It pervades countless aspects of our lives today and those of us without an online presence are in the minority. Facebook is fast approaching the one billion user mark and, together with other social media sites such as Twitter and Myspace, accounts for 62% of adults worldwide who now actively use social media.

We are all familiar with so-called celebrities playing out their relationships in public, whether through the traditional media or by way of social media sites. "Twitter storms" have become common parlance and are used by couples to declare their love in a wave of publicity and also to air the dirty laundry of a relationship break-up. But these public declarations are no longer just the preserve of the famous or indeed infamous. The evolution of relationships can be played out online for the benefit of family, friends and often a wider audience, irrespective of the user's public persona. Getting together and breaking up is now common currency for social media sites and even a Nemo may not be immune to exposure.

So how can social media be misused, and conversely, used advantageously in the context of relationships and the family?

A telling statistic, demonstrating the reach of Facebook's tentacles, is that one in three divorces now cites Facebook as a contributing factor to the breakdown of the marriage. "Misuse" of Facebook could extend to the sending of inappropriate messages to members of the opposite sex; the posting of unsavoury and insensitive comments; the posting of compromising photographs; and the information passed on by "friends" on sites such as Facebook regarding the other spouse's behaviour or misbehaviour. Forget a centralised "Big Brother" mentality, what this really means is that the social media network is potentially alive with "spies".

So what, if anything, can be done regarding the use of social media if a relationship is on the rocks?

Most importantly, the parties should be encouraged to think about how their online actions could be interpreted. Whilst social media sites can be used as an emotional crutch during difficult time, by reaching out online to friends and family for support, nevertheless, users should think carefully about posting private information that could be used against them in divorce proceedings, whether in respect of financial disputes and / or custody arrangements relating to any children. Consider, at the very least, modifying any online behaviour, for example:

1. By posting inflammatory statements, a spouse can add fuel to an already highly stoked fire. Be careful about statements that could be used against you, for example, disclosure of your financial position, child custody arrangements and changes to your relationship status.

2. Be careful about the photos you post. Pictures showing a parent drinking alcohol and partying with friends whilst in charge of the children could be damaging. In addition, evidence of an extravagant lifestyle could be used to your detriment if you are pleading relative impecuniosity.

3. Even if you are trying to remain on good terms with your ex-spouse, try to keep your social networking circles as separate as possible as information may filter back, no matter how innocent you perceive such information to be.

4.Be live to the fact that many sites will automatically update your location when you amend your profile. This may not be something you wish to disclose, especially in the context of a new relationship.

Unfortunately, social media does not only affect the so-called adults in the relationship. There are repercussions for any children too. Social media sites can become battlegrounds for custody or contact rights. For example, if one parent conveys that he is intending to move (especially if this is abroad) or has started a relationship with someone else this could be used by the other parent in court proceedings relating to residence and contact with their children.

Furthermore, many children actively use Facebook, Twitter and Myspace and will often post comments about how they are feeling during any family proceedings that they are involved in. Often this is in preference to talking to their parents directly. Family proceedings involving children increasingly now include printouts or screen shots of social media websites as evidence of the children's wishes and opinions.

This very scenario has been played out in a recent case in Australia (Department of Communities (Child Safety Services) & Garning (2012)) involving four children who set up a Facebook page that purportedly evidenced their wishes in respect of where they should live. The brief facts of the case are that the mother travelled to Australia, from Italy where the family lived, with her four daughters in 2010 (then aged 7 to 13) claiming that it was a permanent relocation. Conversely the father claimed that it was only a four-week holiday and, in 2011, he asked the Court to order the girls' to return to Italy. The father won his claim and importantly, the girls were interviewed twice before the Court reached its decision. However, shortly before the girls were due to return, a Facebook page was launched expressing their intent to stay in Australia, and on the back of this, the children's great aunt applied to the Australian court (requesting that the girls remain in Australia) on the grounds that their views were not adequately taken into account. Although the appeal was dismissed in August 2012, the Judge controversially decided to hear the case again. Exasperated and refusing to enter into a battle of Facebook, the father quietly returned to Italy to await judgement and avoided countering with a social media weapon. The girls were interviewed once again by a welfare officer to understand their wishes and the Judge today yesterday that the girls be returned to Italy.

Regardless of the appropriateness of the decision, and the case has divided opinion, it demonstrates how a Facebook page can morph from a seemingly innocuous beginning into a highly vocal and organized campaign. This is a sign of the times and arguably a worrying development in the context of judicial authority.