Anyone who watches television or browses the Internet knows that ‘tis the season once again for holiday shopping advertisements. If the commercials are right, tech tools are on everyone’s list this year (again), regardless of age and family status. Separated families, despite not often being portrayed in picture-perfect holiday advertising campaigns, are no different. Every member of the family, whatever form the family takes, has more access to technology today than ever before. According to Statistics Canada, almost all Canadians under the age of 45 use the Internet every day, while more than 60 per cent of Canadians under 75 think technology makes their lives better. Is this good or bad news for the separated family? A bit of both, perhaps.
FAMILY MANAGEMENT SOFTWARE
There are some great technology options to make co-parenting easier and help families which do not share homes to cooperate and communicate effectively. Courts may even order parties to use these when communicating directly proves untenable, and where keeping clear records is key to reducing conflict.
Trying to work out a schedule with your ex? How about making sure each parent knows what activities that the kids are involved with and when to be there? Yes, there is an app for that. Actually, there are a lot of apps for that. One of the most well-known is the Our Family Wizard software, which has been around since the turn of the century and offers a comprehensive platform that can be used for scheduling, documenting expenses, and notably, improving communications between partners in extremely high-conflict situations. Other similar platforms include 2Houses, Parentship, Coparently and WeParent.
In each case, the software logs messages exchanged between parties, providing a record that can be used in family law proceedings as evidence. Professionals, such as parenting coaches or counsellors, can be included where access to information is needed for assessments and reports. What many users find helpful is the option to share information with their respective counsel, potentially reducing the time and resources necessary to compile evidence for upcoming court appearances and/or mediations. Although most co-parenting apps involve a monthly cost, many separated couples find such software helps in building a positive co-relationship by keeping them focused on the best interests of their children.
COOPERATING ON INTERNET USE
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut schools and forced children to move their learning online for extended periods, a majority of parents reported that they were concerned about the amount of time their kids spent using electronic devices, including smartphones, tablets, computers and other tools. A quick browse through medical research reveals that parents’ concerns are warranted: reports of increased social isolation, varying depression and anxiety risks, and a higher prevalence of obesity among young people who spend an inordinate amount of time behind a screen are raising the alarm for many parents. Because experts disagree on what constitutes “too much” Internet, social media and general computer use, screen time for kids in separated families may be yet another source of conflict between parents. What is clear is that more parental conflict is not good for children, either, so whether it is directly, or through communicating via one of the apps listed above, co-parents want to be talking about what each thinks is reasonable in terms of their children’s device use.
INTERNET SAFETY AND THE DIGITAL GENERATION
Today’s families can include two or three (or more!) generations of members who have grown up with the Internet. Social media as we know it has been around since the 1990s, so it is safe to say that online communities are here to stay. As technology becomes increasingly a part of daily life for Canadians of all ages, and when making that holiday investment in an innovative new device for the young people in your life, online safety is top of mind for many families.
Normal use of social media (even moderate use limited to certain hours of the day) by young people poses risks that parents not only need to be aware of but proactive about in terms of protecting their children. Considering that it is estimated that 71 per cent of teens hide their social media usage from their parents, parents need to be consistently checking in to make sure that kids are safe from the potential dangers posed by the networking, entertainment and communications tools many of us use multiple times every day.
Award-winning online child protection expert Charlene Doak-Gebauer highlights the following concerning statistics, for parents and guardians whose children have access to the Internet for unsupervised time:
- The prevalence of Internet child sexual exploitation increased by five thousand per cent between 2004 and 2015
- Children under 10 years old now account for 22 per cent of online pornography consumption by people under 18
- Almost half of teenagers say that “sending sexual or naked photos or videos is part of everyday life for teenagers nowadays”
Young Internet users are also at greater risk for being victimized by fraudsters by giving away personal information or entering into financial contracts that they do not understand, which may leave unsuspecting parents on the hook for significant amounts. Parents also need to know that, while cases have not yet emerged in Canada, there is a growing body of law in the United States that holds parents liable for bullying their children may engage in, whether in person, online, or both.
What are parents to do? Children and young adults do not just want, but need, to use computers, laptops, and other Internet-enabled devices every day as part of their education and socialization. A novel concept that draws upon the legal profession for inspiration is to enter into a contract with your children to govern screen time and Internet use. One expert likens such contracts to those we all sign when we buy a phone and activate it with a service provider. There are terms and conditions of use that failure to comply with will result in a loss of network access. The important piece, and what might be most challenging for separated parents, is consistency:
If a parent hosts a conversation and lays out the terms before purchasing the device, things generally go better. Both parties agree to it and sign it. The key is that the parent must stick to the terms and enforce them.
SEPARATION AGREEMENTS, CO-PARENTING PLANS: YES, WE DO THAT
The lawyers at Bortolussi Family Law have over a century of combined experience and put the best interests of their clients and their families first. We can help you develop a separation agreement and a parenting plan that works for your family now and in the years to come. We encourage you to book your appointment for a consultation today: 416-987-3300 is the number to call for professional legal advice from a team that puts your family first.