Study will examine use of technology in child-parent communication during divorce and separation

A professor of social work at King's University College is conducting a study to understand the impact that parental communications with children using Internet technologies has during times of divorce or separation.

Dr. Rachel Birnbaum is collecting data through a survey, looking at how technologies such as Skype or FaceTime affect the parent-child relationship during times of family dissolution, especially when one parent lives far away. The survey is geared toward lawyers and mental health professionals.

“I think [the information] will help lawyers and judges in particular who are making court orders. The more information we have, people can look at it and see whether it has been helpful or not,” says Birnbaum.

She says that the full extent of the benefits and challenges when using online technology for parents and their children to communicate post-separation are unknown because empirical data has never been collected before. The goal of the study is to find out what those pros and cons are and to add to the knowledge base that legal and mental health professionals can reference when needed.

Birnbaum predicts that some benefits might include that communicating through technology is helpful when keeping in touch with a child or parent who lives elsewhere. But she also predicts that, for some, this could mean financial barriers in terms of accessing the devices to communicate, challenges arising if the situation is high-conflict (concerns for miscommunication or abuse including domestic violence) or the unhealthy feeling of inviting one parent into the home of the other when they are trying to move on because technology, such as video chatting, allows them to directly see into the household.

“I don’t know if it will impact custody because this is more about parent-child contact and where the child lives,” says Birnbaum. “I don’t think that this would have an impact other than the implications of a child living with one parent and the other parent lives a great distance away but wants some extra time. Technology might be helpful to keep in touch with your child. But then the impact is what does this mean to the custodial parent and their time and relationship with the child?”

Birnbaum is hoping to conclude the study by the end of summer.

Click here to read more on technology and family law.

Updated: April 28, 2017, Rachel Birnbaum is a professor at King’s University College, London, Ontario – not at Western University.

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