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The Role of Social Networking in Divorce

Social networking is a phenomenon which, like it or not, has become a part of modern life. The statistics alone make this a difficult concept to side-step. Facebook has over 800 million active users across the globe with over 50% of those active users logging on to Facebook in any given day. Last year, Twitter celebrated 100 million global active users and announced that the service was averaging 230 million tweets per day. These figures are staggering. Given their prevalence in the daily lives of so many, it is perhaps not surprising that social networking sites are now said to be playing a part in marriage breakdowns and divorce. What is surprising however, if recent media coverage is to be believed, is the extent of the role being played – particularly by Facebook – in divorce. 
In 2009, the UK web based company, Divorce-Online, carried out a survey which considered a pool of 5,000 divorce applications. It found that reference was made to Facebook in 20% of applications for divorce based on behaviour. A subsequent survey by the same UK web based company, which again considered a pool of 5,000 divorce applications, was carried out in 2011. The result, recently announced, found that this figure has risen to 33%. The survey also suggested that the most common reasons for reference to Facebook in such proceedings are inappropriate messages sent to members of the opposite sex and the use of Facebook by separated couples to post inflammatory comments about each other.
These statistics may seem alarming, at first glance. Media coverage following their release certainly endorsed that view, with some reports going as far as to state that Facebook is now the cause of one third of UK divorces. However, it is important not to lose sight of the scope of the survey results. They merely claim that ‘reference’ was made to Facebook. In other words, Facebook was mentioned within the divorce applications considered. The other important point is that the references to Facebook appeared in 33% of divorce applications based on behaviour. Behaviour is only one of a number of factors upon which a court action for divorce can be raised.
Nevertheless, the statistics are interesting. It is easy to see the potential for problems posed by Facebook and other such sites following a separation, not only in the context of divorce, but particularly where there are disputes between separated parents regarding children. Social networking sites encourage the ‘sharing’ of personal information on a scale which has never been seen before. This trend means that users of such sites can unwittingly leave their personal life open to an unwelcome level of scrutiny, presumably not envisaged when the information was shared.
The message to users in these sensitive situations is therefore one of caution and, in certain cases, of restraint. Indeed, as mentioned by a leading family law counsel at the Four Jurisdictions Conference in Liverpool in February 2012, some family lawyers may now even go so far as to advise their clients to remove themselves from social networking sites prior to the start of legal proceedings.  In the hands of an ex-partner, seemingly innocent photographs posted of a luxury holiday to the Caribbean, or comments made about a hefty work bonus or particularly eventful work Christmas party can take on a very different meaning in an emotionally charged divorce where there are financial or child related issues in dispute, particularly where one’s character or conduct is being called into question.
For further information about divorce and other family law matters, please contact Shona Smith or Karen Gibbons.