The increase of virtual technology options, paired with ease of accessibility, has removed many barriers for parents to communicate with their children post-separation. But, we should not kid ourselves - all that glitters is not gold! Parents who rely (to varying degrees) on virtual technology to maintain relationships with their children often experience additional conflict with the custodial parent due to the introduction of the technological “godsend”.
Adrianna Banaszek, family lawyer and founder of Calgary-based law firm Banaszek Family Law, explains how the booming virtual technology sector has both positive and negative effects on children and their parents post-separation, and how common use of these alternate parent-child contact methods may develop a new legal landscape in Alberta.
What is Virtual Parenting?
“Virtual parenting” refers to parent-child contact and communication through the use of virtual technology. Virtual parenting is usually parenting from afar through a plethora of communication means, including, text messaging, email, Skype, FaceTime, communicating through social networking sites, and good old-fashioned telephone calls.
Technology allows separated parents the option to increase communication and contact with their children when they are not the primary (custodial) caregiver or during the other caregiver’s parenting time. Whether the risks outweigh the benefits of these alternate modes of communicating for parents and their children is still out for debate.
Virtual tech is shaping the legal landscape
What is certain, however, is the judicial notice that virtual technology is receiving in the Alberta Courts when it comes to decisions about parenting arrangements. There is no doubt that technology has allowed parenting time to take place in situations where it likely would not otherwise. For instance, long-distance parenting arrangements are made possibility with communication technologies. The Alberta decision of BRH v RPS, 2016 ABQB 346, highlights that the use of virtual technology is a factor weighed in mobility applications (parents who wish to relocate the child to another jurisdiction) and long-distance parenting arrangements. Justice R.A. Graesser stated as follows:
 Technology will undoubtedly play a role. With technology, the absent parent can have daily face-to-face time with their child via Skype or Facetime, such that communications during non-parenting periods are not limited to one-dimensional telephone calls or written communications.
Although this particular case did not turn on maximizing contact between the parties, notice was taken of the parenting opportunities technology would afford (para 108). This decision was later appealed and the appellant mother was granted primary care of the child with the ability to relocate the child to Spain. Although the success of the appeal did not hinge on the role virtual technology would play, it was considered in allowing the father (non-custodian parent) generous access to his child who was to move overseas in between holidays and summers when in-person parenting time would be realized.
Is virtual technology an aid or a grenade for co-parenting?
Although virtual technologies are common place in the Western world today, there has been minimal research conducted about whether and how virtual parent-child contact impacts children, their parents and the parenting relationship post-separation. The minimal empirical research is most concerning when it comes to families involved in high-conflict disputes, which often stem from poor communication, lack of trust between the parties, and/or mental health issues.
Luckily, Dr. Rachel Birnbaum, is asking these very important questions through her research. Dr. Birnbaum is a social work professor at King’s University College, Western University, where she focuses her research on family justice issues. She conducted a survey which asked the following questions:
What conflicts, if any, do adult and child clients report as a result of using any type of technology for parent-child contact?
What benefits and challenges do family justice professionals believe about the use of virtual technology as a means of parent-child contact?
The Parents Report
The parents participating in the survey reported that the majority of conflicts occurred as a result of the following:
60% reported that the other parent listened in on their conversation with the child.
35% reported that the other parent alleged that the child is too busy doing something else at the designated virtual parenting time.
41% reported that the child is not available for the call at the designated time.
4% reported that the other parent alleges that they do not know how to use or set up the virtual technology to allow for the access.
Other reasons conflict occurred: using the time to harass the custodial parent, using the child to harass the non-resident parent and child support/inappropriate discussions with the child, and some parents reported that they don’t want their children using technology due to safety or confidentiality concerns.
The Children Report
The children participating in the survey reported that the majority of conflicts sometimes occurred as a result of the following:
55% reported that conflict arose as a result of the child being busy and not always wanting to talk to the other parent at the time.
45% reported that the child does not have a lot to say to the other parent and the other parent gets upset due to this.
39% reported that the other parent is listening to the conversation during the parent-child contact.
Children mostly expressed that although virtual parenting was advantageous, virtual access did NOT alleviate their longing for their parent, and that the virtual parent contact increased their anxiety and sadness about the absence of physical contact with their non-resident parent.
The Lawyers Report
The survey found that from the perspective of family justice professionals, the risk of using virtual parent-child contact is for evidence gathering, meaning the contact is sometimes focused on planning future litigation rather than to strengthen the parent-child bond. The majority of professionals concluded that the benefit of virtual contact is that the child may maintain contact with their parent over geographical distances (beneficial for mobility applications and to foster the parental-child bond).
Benefits and challenges of parenting via virtual tech
Dr. Birnbaum’s survey findings support that there are both risks and rewards surrounding virtual parent-child contact. The risks as identified by the parents result mainly from privacy and confidentiality and the burden placed on the custodial parent to organize the parent-child contact. The benefits include that the child may maintain an ongoing relationship with a parent that they are not constantly in-person contact with. It also has the potential of reducing hostility between parents because they have no contact (or minimal contact) with each other – this is more relevant for children who are older and able to use the technology without assistance or supervision from the other parent.
The findings are important as this is a time when virtual parent-child contact is increasingly being recommended by family justice professionals and the court as a means of maintaining parent-child relationships post-separation. Dr. Birnbaum notes that more research is required to determine the impact of the relative costs and burdens to parents having to provide the technology and how much adult assistance is required to organize and have the child available at the designated time, along with examining the safety risks underlying the use of the different types of technology.
*The study is limited by the sample size.
Implementing virtual parenting post-separation: Whose job is it, anyway?
The short answer is: it is the responsibility of both parents. Although the custodial parent may not believe that they benefit from their child interacting with their ex-spouse or the other parent in situations of high conflict, Canadian courts are very clear that for children to maintain relationships with both parents, both parents must be involved. Maintaining relationships with both parents after the parties have separated is highly valued by the Courts and it is considered to often be in the best interest of the child.
Canadian courts have ruled that custodial parents have an obligation to promote compliance with custody and access orders and cannot simply leave the questions of custody and access up to the child. This means that there is an obligation on the custodial parent to actively facilitate access with the other parent by ensuring that the children are available for the virtual or in-person parenting time. For more information on access enforcement, read the Department of Justice Canada’s Overview and Assessment of Approaches to Access Enforcement: An Update by Dr. Martha Bailey.
Need help crafting a parenting plan post-separation? Banaszek Family Law is here for you.
At Banaszek Family Law, we offer independent legal advice and representation to serve your custody and parenting needs, whether that is drafting a Separation Agreement which includes a comprehensive parenting plan, or representing you in your family law and divorce litigation.