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Divorce and the rise of social media

In this extract from the second edition of Marilyn Stowe’s book Divorce and Splitting Up: Advice from a Top Divorce Lawyer, she discusses the rise of social media and the affect it has had on divorce.

Family lawyers are finding it difficult to ignore social media. Eight years ago, Friends Reunited was held responsible for the rising divorce rate as users contacted their former partners. More recently, Facebook and Twitter have been blamed. One 2011 survey of 5,000 divorce petitions claimed that a third of the behaviour petitions contained the word “Facebook”. The most common reasons for citing Facebook related to the other party’s behaviour with members of the opposite sex, but also parties using their public walls as divorce “weapons”, post-separation. When Twitter appeared in petitions, it was for a similar reason: unpleasant comments about former partners.

Why are warring couples throwing caution to the wind and broadcasting their rage and revulsion towards one another online? Social networks can be addictive, particularly when fuelled by emotion or alcohol. They also tap into a common need that I often encounter with former partners, who feel compelled to keep contacting one another, even when they have nothing positive to say. Clients used to resort to text messages, which fulfilled the same need, but were at least private. Now it appears that Facebook and Twitter have taken over, with outcomes that are potentially more damaging.

It is true that in some divorce cases, Facebook and Twitter have their uses. For those in the public eye, Twitter can be viewed as a tool to “set the record straight”.

However, small personal vindications can be far outweighed by the legal implications. What is said online can easily be stored, retrieved and presented in court at a later date. A courtroom may seem like a world away from a comfy armchair and an iPad, but it isn’t. Not when the outcome could be an adverse decision in a child contact dispute, or an adverse settlement for divorce litigation misconduct. “Going public” in this way, and sending malicious communications around the world for everyone to see, could be counted as unreasonable behaviour for divorce and could result in various injunctions, child contact issues, financial awards and increased costs awards.

At its worst, a diatribe on Twitter or Facebook can cross the line into cyberbullying. In my experience as a family lawyer, online harassment in divorce cases is rarely reported on, but is becoming increasingly prevalent. Cyberbullying and harassment are criminal offences in England and Wales. However online abuse is often anonymous, and it can be difficult to ascertain the culprit’s identity, even when the clues are all there, because websites are reluctant to provider users’ details.

We advise all our clients to think long and hard before they press the “Post”, “Tweet” or “Send” buttons.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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