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Family Mediation In The Digital Age

by Sherri Donovan

April 2015

Sherri Donovan
Twenty-first century technology will continue to impact family life and mediation. The family mediator’s awareness of the possible positive and inflammatory influences of the internet, may be instrumental in effectively identifying and resolving the modern family’s disputes. Social media, cyber abuse, the child’s computer voice, the use of a forensic computer expert and the futuristic divorce are factors to be considered in the practice of family mediation.

Divorce mediation should possibly include discussion of internet, computer and smartphone usage. Issues that may need to be addressed in mediation include appropriate communication between the spouses, with the mediator, and avoiding inappropriate exposure to the children.

The Child’s Voice, Technically Speaking

Most children and teenagers of today have grown up with the internet and smart-phones. They receive homework assignments by e-mail, research on-line, and utilize texting and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram to stay connected with friends and relatives. Skilled computer science kids and their websites have enhanced creative and artistic expression. The “nerd” has many times become the new rock star. Children of divorce may be more prone to feelings of stress, sadness, and loneliness due to the changes and conflicts in their families. Children of divorce may experience the loss of contact with a parent or be alone more often, physically and emotionally because their parents are preoccupied with the divorce or organizing their new lives. The children might isolate themselves in a virtual world rather than “IRL” (in real life). They may be more vulnerable to cyber bullying. They may become exposed to extreme sex on the internet, making it difficult for them to have healthy personal relationships. Sexting with strangers, on-line relationships, and creating virtual personalities that show oneself in destructive behavior can cause physical and psychological damage. It can also lead to legal and criminal problems and harm educational and career opportunities. It is the parents’ obligation to reach out to their children in a way so they don’t shut down and to get themselves and their children the psychological help to navigate the family through the divorce process. A family mediator can be instrumental. A family mediator can help the parents discuss the need to monitor and participate in their children’s virtual world without interfering with their healthy peer friendships. Parents in mediation need to encourage children to participate in high “touch” not just high-tech. Affection, sports, meals and cultural activities with family and friends are essential. Parents can be a role model (which is hard during divorce) and not use their children’s computer or social media sites or any computer that the kids may obtain access to for romance, pornography or communications they wouldn’t want their children to see. The computer savvy children of today can and will find digital information quite easily about the parents and what they are watching.

Social Media Can Be Harmful During Parenting Dispute Resolution

Photos and postings on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media sites by parents during the period of family dispute resolution may be provocative, and hinder the mediation process. Disparaging remarks on the internet about the child’s other parent can demonstrate a failure to cooperate with the other parent. Failure to foster the child’s relationship with his or her other parent is a key factor in damaging children and the mediation process. E-mails and text messages between parents, spouses, or significant others need to be done with care. The family mediator may need to monitor the e-mails and communication between parents to reduce conflict. A mediator may wish to suggest the curtailment of social media during a divorce so as not to inflame or compromise the already delicate and fragile family dynamics.

The mediator and parents can maximize healthy options to utilize digital technology to enhance the parent-child relationship, and co-parenting coordination. One of the best uses of technology is to facilitate the communications and relationship between a geographically distant parent and child. Regular skype, facetime and other methods of video chatting has connected and sometimes cemented a child’s relationship with a parent, extended family and other people who are important to a child. We are a mobile society. Relocating or traveling for work or education is quite common. Real time video communication, seeing each other’s faces, or sharing a child’s favorite book is priceless when there is no other way to be physically together.

There are online support groups and chat rooms concerning divorce. Software has been developed and is available that assists parents and children post-divorce concerning communication, calendars, scheduling, coordination between two households, and the paying of children’s expenses. Of course, internet dating sites and apps for divorcees presents its own subculture of advantages and dangers. Discussions of how to use the internet appropriately may be important in family mediation.

Cyber Abuse Is A Form Of Domestic Violence

One role of the mediator is to address power imbalances or dangerous behavior between spouses. Cyber attacks are not just against corporations like Sony. One may be a victim of cyber abuse from a spouse or intimate partner. One in four stalking victims have been cyber-stalked. Cyber abuse includes but is not limited to threats, name-calling, and derogatory remarks in text messages, e-mails, and on social media sites. Incessant digital/electronic communication, including numerous hang-up calls, or persistent voicemails and text messages can be considered harassment by a family or criminal court. Stalking can occur by GPS devices placed on automobiles to trace one’s movement and by cellphone transmissions. It is not uncommon for a spouse in a conflicted divorce to not only intercept telephone numbers and phone records of incoming and outgoing calls, but also voice messages and text messages. Abuse can also be accomplished through “caller-id spoofing”. A person can falsely identify him/herself by attaining different phone numbers and then implicate a spouse or significant other in criminal activity. Connection of a cordless phone can be monitored and cell phones are used as listening devices. Spy phones can be set up to read one’s call logs and e-mails.

Computer hacking permits one to gain access to private computer files. Spyware allow one to take snapshots of another’s computer through remote access. Creating false profiles, changing passwords to delete critical e-mails, sending fraudulent e-mails, interception of e-mails, distributing photos, videos, personal information, and damaging one’s public image, or employment through the internet may occur in high-conflict family matters. There are a number of social networking sites, including “Formspring”, “Intellius”, and “MySocial 24x7” that are used for GPS and camera surveillance. Mediated Agreements may need to include cyber security and protection from cyber abuse.

The Newest Member of the Mediation Team - the Forensic Computer Expert

The divorce mediation process has become most effective as a team approach. The original members of the team included the mediator and the family members. Thereafter, mental health professionals, divorce coaches, accountants/financial planners, and/or vocational experts were added as needed to help address psychological, tax, retirement and employment issues. The forensic computer expert may be the newest member of the team. Computer forensics is a branch of digital forensic science concerning documentation found in computers or other digital storage media. The discipline involves similar techniques and principles to data recovery, but with additional guidelines and practices designed to create an audit trail. A computer forensic expert preserves, identifies, extracts, documents, and interprets computer data.

Preservation of computer files concerning finances is essential in divorce mediation. During preservation, data identified as potentially relevant should be agreed upon in mediation not to be deleted or destroyed. Once documents have been preserved, collection is the transfer of data from a person or business to a mediator or the mediator’s forensic computer expert. In mediation, it can then be agreed upon what computer files are relevant to the mediation and should be shared and which files can remain private as personal to a spouse. If a computer is considered a “family” computer, it is not considered private by law. The rational is that a home computer is similar to a file cabinet. In matrimonial mediation there usually is transparency and full disclosure concerning finances. If financial information was inappropriately obtained by computer hacking, the financial information may still be relevant to the mediation. However, the action of one spouse violating a spouse’s or separated spouse’s privacy may need to be addressed in the mediation.

The Futuristic Family Mediation

Family disputes over pets has emerged, will pet robots be next? Will information from the family robot or computer chips be useful in family mediation? How about space travel terms in parenting agreements? Will mediators and participants in mediation be able to share financial records and information with a “blink of an eye” due to the internet and computer files appearing on contact lenses? We already have Google glasses, and Oculus glasses for virtual vacations. Hardware may become a dinosaur. With chips implanted in our walls, roads, and medicine cabinets, voice-activated information and images could appear anywhere. Gadgets are on the market, which provide access to the internet, digital information, and monitor health in watches, jewelry, clothes, and wristbands. Driverless cars and electromagnetic transportation may change the way parents spend time with their children.

I remember twenty years ago conflicts between spouses over who gets the family photos. With digital photography, such disputes are relics of the past. With 3D printers, programmable matter, and nanotechnology, exact replicas and new customized consumer items may be produced easily and reduce conflict over personal property. Will the nature of marriage and relationships change personal bonding issues and the development of intimacy by an increasingly virtual connection?

Mediated agreements concerning assisted reproductive technology, surrogacy and frozen embryos may become more common. The role of multiple parents and caregivers, and open adoption will continue to expand. Mediated parenting agreements may need to include the sperm donor and his spouse/partner, the egg donor and her spouse/partner, the surrogate and spouse/partner, the intended parent(s) , extended family, and other caregivers whom the child has an attachment to.

Due to medical advances, transgender children will have more options for surgery, and treatments. More decisions will need to be made by families with transgender youth that family mediators can address. Will mental illness and special needs children lessen due to advanced genetic screening, neuroscience and use of stem cells and gene therapy? Will parents desire to make decisions whether to utilize genetic and robotic enhancements to their children, which will increase intelligence, talent or physical ability? Should family mediators be prepared to address such concerns? Currently, one is sometimes permitted to appear for a mediation conference by video conferencing. Perhaps in the future, holographic images of us will be present. One thing is certain, science and technological advances will continue to impact family life and mediation. The issues in family disputes that mediator will be asked to assist in resolving will continually change due to scientific advances and options in the twenty-first and twenty-second century.

Sherri Donovan is a family mediator, neutral evaluator, collaborative practitioner and parent coordinator. She is also an adjunct professor of forensic psychology and family law at the Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies, Adelphi University. As director of the Sherri Donovan & Associates, P.C. Family Center in New York City, and a practice for nearly thirty years, Sherri has assisted over 8000 families. She has lectured extensively on family dispute resolution for the United Nations, AFCC, Academy of Professional Family Mediators, Association of Divorce Financial Planners, and the Forensic and Family Law Training Program. Sherri is also the President of Art Helping Life, Inc., a nonprofit that is currently conducting educational programs for children in West Africa and providing material support.



Website: www.sherridonovan.com

Additional articles by Sherri Donovan
The views expressed by authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Resourceful Internet Solutions, Inc., OnlineMediators.com or of reviewing editors.