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With each successive generation, the growth of information and communication technologies (ICT) is exponential as a central fixture within our society. The increased use of technology has spawned a new area of research to explore children's reconfiguration of intimate relationships after separation. There is growing interest in the use and impact of ICT to facilitate parent–child relationships in child custody disputes. This review of both the legal cases and social science literature explores whether virtual parenting time can facilitate, maintain, enhance, or replace in-person parent–child contact. The review highlights the benefits and drawbacks of virtual parenting time and provides suggestions for considering the optimal use of ICT within parenting plans.
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Journal of Child Custody
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Parenting Online: An Exploration of
Virtual Parenting Time in the Context of
Separation and Divorce
Michael Saini a , Faye Mishna a , Jessica Barnes b & Shely Polak a
a University of Toronto , Toronto , Canada
b Catholic Children's Aid Society of Hamilton , Hamilton , Canada
To cite this article: Michael Saini , Faye Mishna , Jessica Barnes & Shely Polak (2013): Parenting
Online: An Exploration of Virtual Parenting Time in the Context of Separation and Divorce, Journal of
Child Custody, 10:2, 120-140
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120
Parenting Online: An Exploration of
Virtual Parenting Time in the Context
of Separation and Divorce
MICHAEL SAINI and FAYE MISHNA
University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
JESSICA BARNES
Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton, Hamilton, Canada
SHELY POLAK
University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada
With each successive generation, the growth of information and
communication technologies (ICT) is exponential as a central
fixture within our society. The increased use of technology has
spawned a new area of research to explore children’s reconfiguration
of intimate relationships after separation. There is growing interest
in the use and impact of ICT to facilitate parent–child relationships
in child custody disputes. This review of both the legal cases and
social science literature explores whether virtual parenting time
can facilitate, maintain, enhance, or replace in-person parent–
child contact. The review highlights the benefits and drawbacks of
virtual parenting time and provides suggestions for considering the
optimal use of ICT within parenting plans.
KEYWORDS parent–child relationships, information and com-
munication technologies, virtual parenting, divorce
In 2004, Utah became the first U.S. state to legislate the authority of judges
to include virtual parent–child contact within parenting plan orders. As a
result, parents in Utah are required to “permit and encourage” online com-
munication when the technology is “reasonably available” (Utah Code
Address correspondence to Michael Saini, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work,
University of Toronto, 246 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON M5S 1A1, Canada. E-mail: michael.
saini@utoronto.ca
Journal of Child Custody, 10:120–140, 2013
Copyright © Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1537-9418 print/1537-940X online
DOI: 10.1080/15379418.2013.796265
Downloaded by [70.27.2.83] at 08:38 03 June 2013
Parenting Online 121
Advisory Guidelines, 2004, 30-3-33(14)). Since then, 13 other states have
developed virtual parent–child contact provisions within their legislation or
have drafted bills to support virtual parent–child contact in child custody
cases (Bach-Van Horn, 2008). Although there is a growing number of child
custody cases that have considered the use of information and communica-
tion technologies (ICT) for ongoing parent–child contact, there remains a
lack of clarity regarding the circumstances and methods for using ICT to
facilitate, maintain, or enhance parent–child relationships postseparation and
postdivorce.
An exploration of virtual parent–child contact is timely since modern
technology is creating a new world of social communications, particularly
for young people whose use of text messaging, email, websites, webcams,
and chat rooms is exploding worldwide (Mishna, McLuckie, & Saini, 2009;
Mishna, Saini, & Solomon, 2009). Virtual parent–child contact has the poten-
tial to offer a reasonable alternative for children to maintain contact with
their parents by providing them with additional methods for communicating
and helping them remain in consistent contact with both parents. Although
virtual parent–child contact has the promise of facilitating parent–child com-
munication across great distances beyond telephone calls and letter writing
(Gottfried, 2012), there is nonetheless a growing debate about the use of
ICTs for parent–child contact postseparation and postdivorce. Questions
remain about whether virtual parent–child contact should be considered a
substitute for in-person parent–child contact and whether the use of these
technologies should justify a custodial parent to relocate a child away from
the noncustodial parent (Bach-Van Horn, 2008; Gottfried, 2012).
This is the first known review that considers both the social science
evidence and legal cases of online communication within the context of
separation and divorce. This paper will include documentation of children’s
increased use of ICT, including international rates of children’s online
activities, the types of ICT activities, and children’s developmental
considerations for using ICT. The discussion is based on the emerging
empirical evidence regarding the use of ICTs for supporting parent–child
relationships in nondivorced populations (e.g., military parents, parents in
prison, students at college, etc.) and the limited studies of virtual parent–
child relationships postseparation and postdivorce. The small number of
studies located for this review points to the need to be cautious about making
generalizations about children’s experiences of using ICTs for virtual contact
with parents postseparation. As well, legal cases will be reviewed to explore
virtual parent–child contact within the courts. The review is timely given the
growing role of virtual parent–child contact within child custody cases, and
so it is important to consider the strengths and limitations of the empirical
evidence in developing recommendations regarding the optimal use of ICTs
for supporting virtual parent–child contact postseparation. A comprehensive
review of the social science literature and legal child custody cases helps
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122 M. Saini et al.
clarify the prevalence of online communication among divorcing families,
shed light on the types of online communication tools used to maintain
parent–child contact, determine the impact of virtual contact on parent–child
relationships, and shape guidelines for the effective use of virtual contact in
promoting, maintaining, and enhancing healthy parent–child relationships
following separation and divorce.
USE OF INFORMATION AND COMMUNICATION
TECHNOLOGIES BY CHILDREN AND YOUTH
The current generation of youth, labelled “digital natives” (Palfrey & Gasser,
2008) has never experienced a world without technology (Valcke, Bonte, De
Wever, & Rots, 2010). ICT is now considered a major form of communication
for children and youth to interact with their peers and social networks.
Children and youth use electronic technology such as the Internet more than
any other medium through which to communicate and socialize (Kaynay &
Yelsma, 2000; Mishna, Saini, etal., 2009; Nie & Hillygus, 2002). Modern tech-
nologies are changing the way individuals, including children and their par-
ents, communicate, interact with others and learn. Communication through
ICT can be in the form of text or audio and visual material. Communication
is now commonly accessed through the medium of electronic mail (email),
newsgroups and bulletin boards (discussion groups usually formed around
a particular topic), social networking sites (where individuals can post and
share text and photos to individual and group profiles), instant messaging
(text conversation in real time among individuals), and chat rooms (text con-
versation in real time among a group of people).
The results of a study on digital use by children conducted by Vandewater
etal. (2007) suggests that technology is playing an increasing role in the lives
of very young children. Vandewater etal. found that “approximately 4% of
0- to 2-year-olds, 20% of 3- to 4-year-olds, and 27% of 5- to 6-year-olds used
the computer on a typical day (those who spent an average of 50 minutes at
the keyboard)” (p. 1010). According to a survey conducted by Statistics
Canada (2010a), eight of 10 Canadian households had access to the Internet
at the time of the survey, and over half had more than one device that they
used to access the Internet (e.g., home computer, laptop, cell phone, tablet,
etc.). Further, they found that 80% of individuals over the age of 16 used the
Internet in 2009 from various locations including home, school, public
library, work, or other places (see Table 1).
Gross (2004) surveyed 261 students in Grades 7 and 10 and found that,
on average, students engaged in 40 minutes of instant messaging per day,
which far exceeded the time they spent on any other online activity. The
most common types of daily online activities included: (1) instant messag-
ing (M = 40.0 minutes; SD = 46.9); (2) online visiting of websites (M = 33.5
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Parenting Online 123
minutes, SD = 41.3); (3) downloading music (M = 31.4 minutes, SD = 45.4);
(4) email activities (M = 22.2 minutes; SD = 18.2); (5) online chatting (M = 7.51
minutes; SD = 19.8); and (6) posting on message boards (M = 6.58 minutes;
SD = 19.0). More recently, Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, and Purcell (2010) found
that children ages 12 to 17 are more likely now to use cell phone texting
than any other technology to communicate. The authors found that 54% of
the children used cell phone texting to communicate daily with their friends,
while only 11% used emails.
Although the majority of youth communicate online with other indi-
viduals they already know (Gross, 2004; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007), an older
study found that only approximately 14% of youth reported that they devel-
oped a close relationship with people not previously known to them (Wolak,
Mitchell, & Finkelhor, 2003). This finding supports more recent evidence
showing that students communicate online with people they already know
(Mishna, McLuckie, etal., 2009). Further, using ICT to communicate with
known social networks has been linked to children’s positive experiences of
the quality of their friendships and romantic relationships (Blais, Craig,
Pepler, & Connolly, 2008; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007). Valkenburg and Peter
found that Internet communication positively affected adolescents’ well-
being by facilitating increased feelings of closeness with their friends. Blais
and colleagues hypothesized that instant messaging improves romantic rela-
tionships by providing more opportunities to communicate and allowing for
more intimate self-disclosure.
CHILDREN’S ONLINE RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEIR PARENTS
The increased use of ICT to communicate has given rise to alternative
methods for parents and children to stay connected. Given that the evidence
regarding virtual parent–child contact within separating and divorcing
families is sparse, much can be learned from these online relationships
within intact families. For example, virtual parent–child contact has been
studied within the context of long distance parent–child relationships when
a parent is overseas in the military (Thompson, 2005), when a parent is in
TABLE 1 Percentage Internet Use by Children by Location of Access
Location 2005 2007 2009
Internet access from any location 67.9 73.2 80.3
Home Internet access 60.9 68.6 77.1
Work Internet access 26.3 30.0 33.7
School Internet access 11.7 14.5 16.6
Public library Internet access 10.2 10.8 11.7
Other location of Internet access 20.3 22.0 27.4
Note. Adapted from Statistics Canada (2010b).
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124 M. Saini et al.
prison (Pennsylvania Prison Society, 2010), when parents are separated from
their children due to work commitments (Yarosh & Abowd, 2011), and when
youth are separated from their parents when they attend university (Hofer,
Souder, Kennedy, Fullman, & Hurd, 2009). Overall, results generally support
the use of these technologies for maintaining parent–child contact, but
specifically when the parent and child both perceive the physical time
(in-person time) they spend together as positive (Hofer etal.; Pennsylvania
Prison Society; Thompson, 2005; Yarosh & Abowd). This suggests that the
use of ICT is best for parent–child contact when a positive relationship has
already been established and can be maintained virtually. There is no support
to suggest that virtual contact itself can help to ameliorate a strained parent–
child relationship without first addressing the cause(s) of the strain.
Yarosh, Davis, Modlitba, Skov, and Vetere (2009) indicate that parents
generally favor the use of the technologies as an alternative to traditional
face-to-face methods of communicating when they are apart from their chil-
dren. Thompson (2005) explored military service members’ use of email and
videophones within the American military and found that short-term parent–
child separation that was supplemented with virtual technology (e.g., video-
conferencing) yielded increased satisfaction for the separated parents. In
contrast, Yarosh and Abowd (2011) found that parents and children had
different expectations regarding the use of ICT. Based on 14 in-depth, semi-
structured qualitative interviews with parent–child pairs (children ranged in
age from 7 to 13 years) who had been separated due to a parent’s work,
children tended to focus on the eventual reunification with the parent,
whereas the separated parent was more likely to focus on the importance of
day-to-day interactions to facilitate ongoing contact during separation. The
most meaningful conversations for the children in the study focused on
reunification (e.g., wondering about the duration until their next contact
with their parents). The children were also more satisfied than their parents
with the amount of contact during separation. The authors hypothesized that
this is because children managed the separation not by focusing on actual
contact, but on the eventual reunification.
Lee (2009) explored the connection between Internet use and the qual-
ity of the parent–child relationships of intact families by surveying 1,312
students aged 12 to 18. Findings were that frequent use of technology for
virtual parent–child communication neither weakened nor strengthened the
relationship between parents and the children when considering intimate
conversations, closeness, and support. Not surprising, the actual time spent
online communicating with a parent was negatively correlated with the
actual time spent with their parents in person.
Facebook is an increasingly popular social networking website that
originally focused on connecting university students but over time has seen
an increase among users age 35 and older, which has been the fastest
growing demographic on the site (Westermann, 2011). This demographic
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Parenting Online 125
shift has included an increased number of parents joining the site, which has
resulted in parents and children becoming “friends” online. Chen, Goh, and
Li (2010) found that the overall quality of the physical (in person) parent–
child relationship was a determining factor in the success of online parent–
child relationships. If the parent–child relationship was perceived as generally
positive, it was more likely that the Facebook relationship was also perceived
as positive. Children who already have a positive relationship with their
parents are more likely, therefore, to embrace a positive online relationship
(Chen etal.). When parent–child relationships are perceived as positive,
Facebook and other social networking sites can provide parents a unique
insight into the child’s personal life and can contribute to increased
communication and as a means of staying connected. Access to these social
networking sites however, can provide insight into parts of their children’s
world that they may not be prepared to reveal. Simply deleting a comment,
“defriending,” or punishing a child based on online content has the potential
to cause conflict between the parent and child (Chen etal.).
VIRTUAL PARENT–CHILD CONTACT WITHIN THE CONTEXT
OF SEPARATION AND DIVORCE
Despite the growing popularity of ICT to maintain parent–child contact, very
few studies have actually considered the use of virtual parent–child contact
within the context of separation and divorce (Castelain-Meunier, 1997;
Gollop & Taylor, 2012; Wolman & Pomerance, 2012; Yarosh, Chew, & Abowd,
2009). Most of the literature regarding virtual parent–child contact postsepa-
ration and postdivorce remains anecdotal with several commentaries about
the potential benefits of using technologies to maintain parent–child rela-
tionships beyond the dissolution of the adult relationships (Bach-Van Horn,
2008; Gottfried, 2012).
In a very small sample of 10 parents and five children from divorced
families, Yarosh, Chew, etal. (2009) found that both the children and parents
attempted to maximize the use of virtual contact when they were unable to
connect in person. Although both children and parents spoke about the posi-
tive aspects of using technologies to stay connected, they also both expressed
having to navigate and manage tensions that arose from communicating virtu-
ally. The children spoke specifically about their attempts to keep the com-
munications as private as possible from the other parent so as not to create
further conflict between the parents. The results of this exploratory study
provide some insight into the experiences of parents and children about the
use of ICT, but caution is needed not to overgeneralize the results from this
very small and unrepresented sample of parents and children.
Castelain-Meunier (1997) surveyed 166 divorced fathers about their use
of ICT to communicate with their children postseparation, noting mixed
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126 M. Saini et al.
results about whether fathers experienced the use of ICT as positive. For
some fathers, virtual contact was experienced as a source of pleasure, while
for others as a source of frustration, especially for those who felt that their
parenting role had become more “virtual” than real.
Two recent studies show similar mixed results about the use of ICT for
facilitating parent–child contact after separation. Wolman and Pomerance
(2012) evaluated the satisfaction of parents and children who used what they
referred to as “telepresence technology,” specifically Skype and FaceTime,
after divorce. The authors administered clinical interviews and question-
naires with 30 adults and 40 children to gain understanding of family mem-
bers’ experiences of the use of technology to facilitate contact. While
acknowledging the limitations of their small sample size, the authors note,
“The attitudes and opinions are [were] overwhelmingly optimistic” (p. 55).
Results suggest that both parents and children supported the use of various
technologies such as Skype and FaceTime as a way to extend their relation-
ship beyond the times that they physically spent together. The authors also
commented that all participants found the use of Skype enjoyable and that
parents found that using Skype made them feel “closer” to their children, and
that the length of contact was greater for teleconferencing versus telephone
use (Wolman & Pomerance).
In contrast, Gollop and Taylor (2012) interviewed 100 parents and chil-
dren from separated families after there had been a relocation legal dispute.
Results suggest that although children used technologies such as Skype,
email, texting, phone, and MSN to keep connected to their nonresident par-
ents between visits, they generally considered this type of contact to be
superficial and frustrating when the technology did not work as planned.
Children revealed that telephone contact was inconsistent at times, which
was further complicated by lost or broken phones. Email communication did
not provide the same immediacy as phone contact, while Skype and other
online webcams were often unsuccessful due to technological difficulties or
challenges in scheduling. In addition, not all families could afford the tech-
nological equipment (e.g., computers, high speed Internet, camera) required
for virtual contact. Children stated that they liked using technology to make
plans for the next face-to-face contact with their parents but that it should
not replace the direct contact with their parents. Face-to-face contact was the
type of communication most preferred by the children.
These two recently published studies demonstrate an important distinc-
tion between the “transitional” and “replacement” use of virtual technologies
for ongoing parent–child contact postseparation and postdivorce. Transitional
use of technology refers to online communication between a parent and a
child for the purpose of facilitating and maintaining parent–child contact
between times spent together face-to-face.An example of transitional tech-
nology occurs when children use Skype to talk to their parents about the
activities that they will do the next time they are together. The use of
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Parenting Online 127
technology for these families is as a transitional tool to keep parents and
children connected. In contrast, replacement technology refers to the use of
technology to replace face-to-face time, such as in relocation cases where
Skype and other technologies are used as a method to keep parents and
children connected without face-to-face time, thereby replacing personal
contact with virtual contact. It is important to note that there is currently no
research to support the use of replacement technology, as the evidence to
date includes samples of children and parents who have at least some face-
to-face contact and therefore use technology as a transitional tool between
face-to-face contacts.
EXPLORATION OF LEGAL CASES
A review of available Canadian legal cases that considered virtual parent–
child contact (e.g., a request made by one of the parties and/or considered
by the judge in his/her summation) reveals an increased attention to the use
of ICT within child custody disputes during the past 10 years (see Figure 1).
Most of the cases in which the issue of virtual access arose involved
parties who lived a considerable distance apart or for whom long-distance
parenting was a pending possibility. Of the 164 cases reviewed, 116 cases
involved parents who lived in different cities (n = 20), provinces (48), or
countries (48).
Eighty of the 164 cases were relocation cases (e.g., cases involving a
petition by one parent to relocate with the child(ren) to another city, prov-
ince, or country). The results suggest that in the majority of cases where
virtual access is sought/proposed or ordered, the use of ICT would likely
supplant physical access to some degree. Relocation of a parent from a child
can create substantial practical obstacles on the frequency of physical con-
tact. In these cases, the moving parent has suggested that the use of ICT can
support the child’s relationship with the nonmoving parent.
FIGURE 1 Virtual access cases by year (2001–2010). (color figure available online)
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128 M. Saini et al.
Given that half of the cases that addressed virtual access included relo-
cation issues, it seems that virtual access is less likely to be raised as an issue
or ordered when parties live in the same region and the distance poses no
barrier to regular physical access. The high percentage of relocation cases
suggest that parents who are seeking to relocate increasingly propose virtual
access, specifically Skype or webcam access (allowing for real-time conver-
sation and visual contact), as a means of making up for their diminished
physical access between the child and the other parent.
Benefits and Limitations of the Use of ICT Based on
the Legal Analysis
The 164 cases revealed wide variation in the kinds of court orders made
respecting virtual contact. Some courts have been more positive about the
utility of virtual technology to facilitate parent–child contact than others. For
example, a judge commented that the contact between parent and child is
not limited to being physically together and that technology can make it
easier to be in contact with the other parent when the parents and the child
are accustomed to using webcam and voice communications through the
Internet (Ben-Tzvi v. Ben-Tzvi, 2006). Another judge noted that, although
electronic communication is not as desirable as in-person access, it does
allow the child to keep in touch with the other parent every day if she so
wishes (Gauvin v. Gauvin, 2009). The relatively inexpensive cost of modern
technologies is another factor for enabling both virtual and verbal communi-
cation between parents and the children (Hulme v. Lowe, 2007). In a handful
of cases, courts ordered virtual contact as a first step in reestablishing a
parent–child relationship or to ensure that some connection could be main-
tained in an already damaged relationship. In these cases, virtual contact was
regarded as a relatively nonthreatening and nonimposing means of commu-
nication that was sensitive to a child’s views and wishes (V.W. c. S.C., 2003;
Ali v. Williams, 2008; L.R.H. v. A.K.H., 2003; Jacobsen v. Hainstock, 2008).
Courts have also rejected the use of virtual contact to maintain parent–
child contact in cases of relocation. In a case involving children ages 5 and
6, the judge noted that given their ages and their close emotional bond with
their nonmoving parent, it was believed that webcam or Skype would not
facilitate an appropriate substitute for regular physical contact (Meijers v.
Hasse, 2007). The ages of the children was also a determining factor in reject-
ing an application for relocation where the use of Skype was considered not
enough for the nonmoving parent to participate in activities or events with
the children (E.L.C. v. E.S.B., 2009). Likewise, it was noted in another case
that the “child is still less than three years old and it is highly unlikely that a
voice on the telephone or a grainy picture on a computer will be any substi-
tute for a flesh and blood father sitting him on his lap or kissing him good-
night” (A.D.P. v. T.E.W., 2005). The quality of the physical parent–child
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Parenting Online 129
relationship is another factor that judges have considered when rejecting the
use of ICT (R.A.L. v. R.D.R., 2007).
Types of Virtual Technologies
The most common types of virtual technologies mentioned were webcam
(89 of the 164 reviewed cases) and email (85 cases). Skype was mentioned
in 43 cases. Webcam or Skype access was usually ordered as an enhanced
alternative to telephone access (allowing for real-time voice and visual com-
munication). Although email access was usually ordered as a supplementary
form of access, it did not replace conventional forms of access such as physi-
cal visits and telephone calls. Instant messaging, MSN, Facebook, and text
messaging were infrequently mentioned and were usually ordered as sup-
plementary forms of access only when it was known that the children were
already making use of such tools.
Types of Orders Regarding Virtual Technologies
Orders varied widely in specificity and in the frequency of virtual access
ordered. The frequency of email communication was less likely to be speci-
fied; orders respecting email access ranged from “unlimited” and “unre-
stricted” to “reasonable” and “at the child’s wishes.” In contrast, the frequency
of webcam and Skype access was usually specified, ranging from a maxi-
mum of unlimited or daily to a minimum of weekly. Frequency tended to
correlate with the ages of the children. The younger the children, the more
likely webcam or Skype access was ordered to take place daily or multiple
times per week. When teenaged children were involved, courts were more
likely to order that webcam and Skype access occurred at the children’s
wishes. In a small number of cases, judges specified the duration of each
webcam or Skype “visit,” ranging from 15 minutes to 45 minutes.
Summary of the Social Science and Legal Evidence
The use of virtual parent–child contact within the context of separation and
divorce is a new and emerging issue relevant to child custody disputes.
Based on the review of Canadian case law, there has been a dramatic increase
in the use of ICT in child custody disputes in the last 5 years, and it is fore-
seeable that the number of cases involving virtual parent–child contact will
continue to rise, especially within the context of relocation cases. It is there-
fore critical for the social science literature to keep pace with this growing
trend within the family courts. Unfortunately, there is little evidence to help
guide custody evaluators to make recommendations regarding the optimal
use of ICT for virtual parenting time postseparation and postdivorce.
Furthermore, there is a lack of outcome data regarding the potential benefits
and drawbacks for facilitating virtual parent–child contact after separation
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130 M. Saini et al.
and divorce. This is clearly a new area of research that needs more
attention.
A limited group of studies from nondivorced populations (Hofer, etal.,
2009; Pennsylvania Prison Society, 2010; Thompson, 2005; Yarosh & Abowd,
2011) provides some preliminary evidence about the potential benefits of
online parent–child relationships, but these should be interpreted with cau-
tion since they do not include separating families.
Emerging evidence suggests that instant ICT, such as video conferenc-
ing (e.g., Skype, FaceTime, etc.) and other instant online contact (e.g., instant
messaging, mobile phone texting) are considered superior to maintain
parent–child relationships compared to delayed ICT (e.g., email, Facebook,
blogging, etc.). Both instant and delayed ICT, however, have shown positive
impact in supporting parent–child relationships.
The primary limitation of the evidence is the paucity of studies that
explore the use of virtual visitation within the context of separation and
divorce, most likely due to the relative novelty of the use of virtual visitation
in these situations. Another limitation is the evolving and changing use of
ICT by both parents and children, therefore making it difficult for the social
sciences to keep pace with these technological advancements in the ways
that parents and children communicate online. This provides significant
impetus for the importance of conducting quantitative and qualitative
research to gather empirical evidence of virtual parent–child contact, particu-
larly as it relates to: the impact on children and adolescents; the relationship
between the noncustodial parent and his or her children; and the implica-
tions of other contextual factors (e.g., the presence of high conflict, cases
involving supervised visits).
POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF VIRTUAL
PARENT–CHILD CONTACT
Quality of Time Spent With Children
Virtual parent–child contact has the potential to provide separated parents
with increased opportunities to spend additional quality time with their chil-
dren despite the obstacle of physical distance. ICT can also provide the
opportunity for more consistency by establishing routines for ongoing con-
tact (Blais etal., 2008; Chen etal., 2010; Hofer etal., 2009; Pennsylvania
Prison Society, 2010; Valkenburg & Peter, 2007; Yarosh & Abowd, 2011;
Yarosh, Chew, etal., 2009).
Minimizing Distance Due to Relocation
There is a growing consensus among researchers and professionals that vir-
tual parent–child contact has the potential to be a positive transitional means
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Parenting Online 131
to maintain contact between children and their parents despite geographical
distance (Ashley, 2008; Bach-Van Horn, 2008; Gottfried, 2012; LeVasseur,
2004; Rivera, 2010). Electronic media can help noncustodial parents to main-
tain ongoing communication with their children so that they are more aware
of the children’s day-to-day activities (Hofer etal., 2009), which can provide
greater depth in online activities rather than just “catching up” on new events
from the last time they had physical contact. Virtual contact can also provide
parents and children with less dependency on rigid schedules for contact,
and therefore virtual contact can create more opportunities for informal
parent–child contact.
Multiple Online Activities That Facilitate Parent–Child Contact
There are now a number of websites that are devoted to creating online
activities for parents and children, such as Our Family Wizard
( ourfamilywizard.com). These new tools and resources can help parents
and children move beyond communicating about daily events by providing
new opportunities to be engaged and entertained while virtually spending
time together. These online activities can provide parents and children
opportunities to interact in play rather than just in conversation. Some of
these activities include: virtual homework assistance, electronic card games
and/or board games, watching the same television shows, singing and
playing instruments together, taking virtual field trips together, sharing
computer screens while surfing webpages, using video conferencing soft-
ware to virtually share a dinner together or for a parent to virtually partici-
pate in bedtime routines, using video and/or audio recordings to create
bedtime stories, and creating “add-on” stories through email or text to
cocreate stories together. Such activities need to reflect the unique circum-
stances (e.g., age of the child, child’s ability to perform activities, individual
interests, etc.).
POTENTIAL LIMITS OF VIRTUAL PARENT–CHILD CONTACT
Limiting Children’s Face-to-Face Time With the Custodial Parent
The use of online technologies to maintain parent–child contact can be frus-
trating for both children and parents, especially if there is an overreliance on
virtual technologies to maintain contact (Castelain-Meunier, 1997). Too much
time spent virtually (e.g., the use of computers, cell phones, etc.) can limit
the physical time that children interact with the parents. Limiting direct inter-
actions due to too much use of ICT can be frustrating for both the residential
parent and the visiting parent, as both parents can develop increasing frus-
tration about the lack of direct contact with their child (Rivera, 2010).
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132 M. Saini et al.
Interference by a Parent
If there are no safety concerns for the child to have contact with a parent,
monitoring of these interactions by the other parent should be discouraged.
Such monitoring and interference can produce strain and discomfort for the
child. Interference by a parent has the potential to negatively affect the
online relationship between children and the other parent. Interference can
occur in several ways including: (1) the custodial parent overly monitoring
the visits; (2) the custodial parent restricting the child’s computer use to set
times not previously agreed upon by both parents; (3) the custodial parent
not providing the child private and quiet space to visit online (e.g., setting
the computer in the television room so the background noise of the televi-
sion makes it difficult for the child to communicate with the other parent);
and (4) the custodial parent refusing to download the required software
updates to ensure that the communication software remains compatible with
that of the other parent.
Younger children may need the residential parent to help with the use
of technology and/or to keep the child focused during the virtual contact
with the other parent. It is important for the residential parent not to nega-
tively interfere with the virtual contact and to have clear boundaries about
his/her role during these contacts so as not to create unnecessary strain for
the child.
Ongoing Interparental Conflict
Many factors that distinguish high-conflict families from low-conflict families
have the potential to disrupt or prevent successful virtual parent–child con-
tact, such as higher rates of parental hostility and preoccupation, severe lack
of trust, and children caught in the conflict (Saini & Birnbaum, 2007).
Parenting plans with high-conflict parents may include virtual parenting time
schedules to allow the children to visit with both parents without the inter-
ference of the other parent. Such parenting plans should be detailed and
should provide sufficient structure to minimize the opportunities for the
parents to advance their conflict.
Access to Technology
Parents may not agree to who should pay for the cost of the technology
needed to facilitate virtual parent–child contact (e.g., high-speed Internet,
computer, tablet, cell phone, data cell phone plan, etc.) A parent may not
have the necessary computer equipment to virtually communicate with the
child online and may not be able to afford to buy these products.
Access to technology also requires that parents have some basic skills to
use devices for communicating online. If a parent is not comfortable using ICT
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Parenting Online 133
or the parent does not see the value of gaining the skills to use ICT to support
the parent–child relationship, the parent may refuse to engage in the use of ICTs.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR PARENTING PLANS
When considering the use of virtual parent–child contact within the context of
child custody disputes, many of the same factors that are considered for face-
to-face contact should be considered for online contact. These include: (1)
structuring contact so that children are not exposed to parental conflict, (2)
developing clear parenting plans so that parents do not interfere with the other
parent’s contact with the child, (3) emphasizing consistent and predictable
dates and times for parent–child virtual contact, and (4) setting clear expecta-
tions about the contact between children and parents. Similar to face-to-face
parent–child contact, structured and well-thought-out access plans appear to be
necessary to ensure the success of visitation and the well-being of all involved.
The use of ICT to support parent–child contact postseparation is an
emerging issue for custody evaluators to consider when developing parent-
ing plans. Based on the limited evidence reviewed, it is imperative that par-
ents and children are clear about the expectations regarding the use of ICT
postseparation. Parenting plans should include detailed expectations about
how best to use ICT so to minimize potential conflicts. To ensure transpar-
ency of expectations of each parent, parenting plans should also consider
the following issues:
1. The children’s age and maturity: Not all children use technology in the
same way, and these differences will depend on the age and stage of
development of each child (see the following section).
2. Financial considerations: Parenting plans should detail who is responsi-
ble for purchasing and updating the technologies used to facilitate vir-
tual parent–child contact.
3. Scheduling virtual visitation: Virtual parenting should not disrupt the
child’s schedule. Similar to face-to-face contact, schedules for virtual par-
enting should consider the child’s time with both parents, the child’s
involvement in extracurricular activities, and other obligations (e.g.,
school, volunteer, and social). It is important to outline a well-defined
schedule of how the visitation will transpire including specific dates,
times, and length of contact.
4. The types of activities: Parenting plans should detail the types of activi-
ties that may or may not be permitted during virtual visitation.
5. The types of technologies used to facilitate online contact: It is important
for parenting plans to clearly articulate the types of technologies that
may or may not be used to communicate such as emails, texting, video
chat, or a shared website for sharing pictures and information.
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134 M. Saini et al.
6. The location of contact: Parenting plans should detail where the com-
puter and/or other technologies should be located in both homes. For
example, decisions should be made regarding whether the computer is
in the child’s bedroom or in a public space within the residence.
7. The people present during virtual visitation and their roles: All parties
that are allowed to be present during virtual visitation should be made
part of the parenting plan so that the roles and responsibilities of all
parties are understood and clearly defined.
8. The level of monitoring and supervision required: If monitoring of the
child while using the communication technology is required, this should
be clearly indicated in the parenting plan so that all parties are aware of
the expectations of monitoring and of any limits regarding the level of
supervision required.
9. Issues of privacy: The issue of privacy should be detailed as it relates to
a child’s virtual access with a parent, without input or interference by the
custodial parent.
10. The behaviors of the custodial and/or noncustodial parent: Specific
guidelines to minimize negative and disruptive behaviors of the parents
should be detailed, including refraining from using children as conduits
of information from one parent to another.
11. Accountability for noncompliance: There needs to be a clear under-
standing by all parties regarding the enforcement mechanisms for non-
compliance regarding virtual contact. These can include stipulations for
failing to follow through with scheduled visitation and/or interfering
with scheduled visitation.
DEVELOPMENTAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR THE USE OF ICT
Child development is important to consider when developing parenting
plans involving ICT, given that children interact differently with technology
according to their ages, levels of development, maturity, and gender (see
Table 2). The tables of developmental stages outlined were developed based
on the works of Allen and Marotz (2003), Beaty (2009), Beck (2008), Santrock
(2007), Vandewater etal. (2007), and Zevenbergen and Logan (2008). By
delineating developmental characteristics and gains across stages of devel-
opment, parenting plans can better address the use of ICT that best meets
the ages and stages of children.
FUTURE DIRECTIONS FOR RESEARCH
An exploration of virtual parent–child contact is timely since modern tech-
nology is creating a new world of social communications. There is a clear
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135
TABLE 2 Developmental Considerations for Virtual Parent–Child Contact
Developmental Stage Consideration Parental Assistance Required Relevance to Virtual Parent–Child contact
Toddler Child (18 months–3
years of age)
• Beginning to use computers
for educational and
noneducational games with
assistance
• Highest degree of parental
assistance required for toddler
to participate in virtual
visitation
• Cognitive, emotional, language, physical,
and moral development in this stage
suggest that virtual visitation can occur
since the toddler is beginning to make
links between self and family, put words
together to form sentences, etc.
Preschool Child (3–5 years of
age)
• Computer use for educa-
tional and noneducational
games
• Child has more ability to
operate basic technology but
would still require parental
assistance for tasks such as
typing.
• Likely to get good use out of video
conferencing where typing is minimally
required
• Use of technology is increasing in this
developmental stage; better ability to
initiate interactions, engage, participate,
and expand on virtual visitation
interactions
School-Age Child (6–8 years
of age)
• Use of computers in home
(homework and video
games)
• Increased use of computer
in school curriculum.
• Moderate degree of parental
support required
• Parents still required to arrange
virtual visitation times and
ensure child is present
• Instant messaging and email can be
introduced, given children’s ability to type,
read, and write.
• Greater emotional expression during
virtual visitation
Pre-Adolescence (9–12 years
of age)
• Proficient use of TV, DVDs,
and video games
• Adept at computer use
(homework and video
games)
• Increased use of social
networking such as
Facebook
• Child could be more involved
in the scheduling of virtual
visitation times.
• Children of this age would
have an increased ability to use
messaging, email, Facebook,
Skype, and have independent
use of a phone for phone calls
and texting.
• Virtual visitation can easily be maintained
at this stage as children use the Internet
and often have extensive knowledge on
how to use it.
• Opportunity for elaborated discussions
using virtual visitations; this can help child
develop deep sense of loyalty to family
and friends (even if parents are divorced/
separated)
(Continued)
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136
Developmental Stage Consideration Parental Assistance Required Relevance to Virtual Parent–Child contact
Adolescence (13–18 years of
age)
• Adept at multitasking with
a variety of technologies
• Significant increase in the
use of social networking
media, with this being the
preferred method for
adolescents to stay
connected
• Little to no parental assistance
required for virtual visitation
• Teenagers are increasingly in
charge of their own
scheduling.
• Teenagers likely require little
to no assistance in operating
the technology and programs
required for virtual visitation.
• Important for other parent to maintain
visitation to avoid negative consequences
or disruptions in parent–child
relationships
• Ability to see perspective of other parent
is an important concept for child when
engaging in virtual visitation and in
understanding the purpose and benefits of
virtual visitation
TABLE 2 Continued
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Parenting Online 137
need for further evidence to explore the use of ICT for parent–child contact
after separation and divorce. There remains a lack of research regarding the
views of children and youth about their experiences of ICT for communicat-
ing with parents postseparation. There are also no longitudinal studies that
have explored the outcomes for children and parents who use online tech-
nologies to maintain, enhance, or replace face-to-face contact.
Interviews with key stakeholders (e.g., judges, lawyers, custody evalu-
ators, etc.) are also important to increase the understanding of the potential
benefits and limitations of virtual parent–child contact, as these interviews
could provide greater insight into the diverse views on the use of online
technologies. Questions for key stakeholders should focus on the current
debates regarding the use of virtual visitation and the potential challenges of
supporting online communication between parents and children.
Special attention is needed regarding the unique factors associated with
separated and divorced families to better inform the field on how best to inte-
grate online technologies to maintain and/or enhance parent–child relation-
ships when children are physically apart from their parents. More research is
needed to consider the unique factors that are specific to child custody dis-
putes including: (1) issues regarding relocation, (2) factors related to interpa-
rental conflict, (3) issues related to monitoring online parent–child relation-
ships, (4) issues regarding scheduling online communication between children
and their parents, and (5) the potential for conflicts regarding the financial
contribution of each parent in the purchase and use of these technologies.
The emerging body of literature regarding children’s increased use of
online technologies points to the growing ease of access and availability of
these technologies to communicate online. Therefore, more attention will be
needed to consider issues of safety and protection for children while they
are online. Specifically, more research is needed to explore how children can
use these technologies while remaining safe from the risks of online com-
munication (Mishna, McLuckie, etal., 2009).
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A considerable number of children face the divorce or separation of their parents globally every year. As parental divorce is often accompanied by changes in the home and social environment of adolescents, they may experience a diminished sense of belonging to one or multiple social contexts, such as the family, school, peer group, or neighborhood, which can, in turn, influence their post-divorce adjustment. To gain insight into the mechanisms and conditions that affect adolescents’ sense of belonging following parental divorce, we have reviewed empirical research from multiple disciplines from a bio-ecological perspective. This review has shown that adolescents’ sense of belonging can be an important protective factor after parental divorce, and is affected by processes at the micro-, meso-, exo-, and macrolevel. However, extensive knowledge on the determinants and mechanisms that affect adolescents’ belonging in the context of divorce remains lacking. Recommendations for future research are given, as a more thorough understanding of the factors that promote the belonging of adolescents in divorced families can be an important next step in promoting a higher quality of life for adolescents after parental divorce.
... Separation from parents can be extremely stressful for children, increasing their risk for adjustment difficulties (Kobak et al., 2016). In order to bridge the gap created by separation between children and their loved ones, virtual contact has been utilized in a number of areas of family life including families with incarcerated parents (McLeod & Bonsu, 2018;Phillips, 2012;Skora & Poehlmann-Tynan, 2020), military families (Mathew-Juarez et al., 2013;Mogil et al., 2015), families with divorced parents (LaMarca, 2012;Saini & Polak, 2018;Saini et al., 2013), extended family members (e.g., grandparents) (McClure et al., 2018) and child welfare families (Iyer et al., 2020;Neil et al., 2020;Quinn et al., 2015). Research in these areas has found that children can benefit significantly in terms of knowledge development, emotional well-being and relationship maintenance from virtual communication with parents and others from whom they are separated. ...
Article
When children are removed from their birth parents and placed in foster care, child welfare policy and practice prioritizes family reunification in permanency planning. Of the many services offered to families in support of reunification, parent-child visitation is one of the most important. The purposes of visitation are to maintain and support the parent-child relationship, facilitate improved parenting skills, and offer social workers opportunities to gauge the family’s progress in meeting reunification goals. Whether supervised or unsupervised, parent-child visitations most often involve face-to-face contact between family members. During periods of sheltering in place in response to COVID-19, however, face-to-face visits have been largely curtailed. In their place, child welfare agencies have begun using virtual visitation through various technology platforms such as smartphones, FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Skype, often facilitated by foster parents. A number of questions have arisen, however, about the effectiveness of virtual visitations and how best to use them as a means of supporting reunification goals. In the present article, we examine existing data on how children respond to virtual communication with parents and extended family and what practical issues and training needs are encountered when implementing virtual visits in juvenile dependency cases.
... First and foremost, a prospective longitudinal study of both media multiplexity and modality switching among a national random sample of separated families comprising dyadic data would be a powerful contribution to the field. Second, different perspectives on technologically mediated communication after parental separation are needed, particularly children's and divorce professionals' perspectives (Saini et al., 2013). So, too, are smartphone app users' perspectives on what helps to manage or reduce interparental conflict, and what does not. ...
Article
Much of the work on media multiplexity theory (MMT) is based on unestablished relationships, in which more channels are presumed to be indicative of higher relational closeness. But a different set of relational dynamics may be at play in preexisting acrimonious partnerships. In this article, we investigate the use of different modes of communication by high-conflict separated parents (media multiplexity), and map changes in modes of communication (modality switching). Qualitative data from 68 separated parents in Australia who reported chronic parental acrimony suggest that a considerable amount of modality switching occurred post-separation. Consistent with MMT, multiplexity was evident but the degree of multiplexity was not as clearly related with the degree of closeness in the co-parental relationship as would be otherwise predicted by MMT. Recent insights into more pernicious forms of family dynamics set an important challenge for communication theories to better account for ex-couple motivational complexities.
... With the advent and growth of technology in our globalised world, virtual parenting and contact need to be considered. Virtual contact can provide increased contact opportunities and minimise distance when parents relocate, but can limit valuable face-to-face time and raise issues around supervision of contact [88]. ...
... Also, as some of the participants of our study have reported, it is important to take into account the minor's age when choosing the most appropriate ICT, to know their schedules so that communications do not interfere with their daily life and to assess if there are parental interferences that could boycott communications (Saini, et al, 2013). ...
Conference Paper
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To examine the influence of Facebook on the intimacy level of parent-child relationship, 17 parent-child pairs were interviewed respectively. Findings revealed that the increased intimacy was due to a deeper mutual trust, a smaller intergenerational gap, equality and a lack of policing behavior from parents. The results supported the cues filtered out approach of computer-mediated communication in which Facebook facilitates communication of affection while reducing the feelings of awkwardness. This study further proposes that equalization phenomenon observed as the reduced of social status cues propels both parents and child to communicate with each other as equal-leveled individuals on Facebook. Overall, the findings suggest that the Internet has become a new and positive mean of communication between parents and child.
Book
A concise, user-friendly coverage of child development. Students, teachers, service providers, and practitioners who work with children and families will find this book a valuable and comprehensive resource.
Chapter
Relocation disputes following parental separation are difficult to resolve by parents and the Family Court alike. Such disputes arise when the resident parent seeks to relocate with the children and that move will have a significant impact on the contact the children will have with their nonresident parent. In recent years, these disputes have prompted greater domestic and international attention due to the higher rates of relationship breakdown, increased population mobility, and debate about whether the courts should allow or restrict relocations. A three-year study interviewing 100 New Zealand families, where one parent sought to relocate, was recently completed. This chapter reports on interviews conducted with children and young people from these families about their experiences. Ascertaining their unique perspectives is consistent with Childhood Studies that places children's own views at the heart of research enquiry. The chapter first reviews the research literature on the impact of parental separation and relocation, with particular emphasis on studies that focus on children and young people's perspectives on these issues. It then outlines and discusses the themes that emerged from the interviews with the children and young people who took part in the study.
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In previous decades the movement away from home to attend college generally involved diminished contact between students and their parents. This has changed substantially in recent years, as the comments above from parents attest. Technological developments such as e-mail, cell phones, instant messaging, and text messaging make it possible for college students and their parents to communicate frequently, and this frequent contact may provide the means for parental monitoring to extend well into a period of emerging adulthood. In this chapter we explore this "electronic tether" and its influence on psychosocial development based on a series of studies we conducted with college students and their parents. We examine the frequency and initiation of contact and how this communication is related to a number of constructs, such as autonomy development, self-regulation, self-governance, the nature of parent-student relationships, and satisfaction with various aspects of the college experience. We explore parental attitudes toward the tether, as well as how students have responded to the level of contact with parents made possible by new technologies. Finally, we consider what strategies students have developed for containing communication.
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This paper reports on the outcomes of a survey implemented in a large regional community of Australia. The survey was completed by parents of children aged four -five years and attending local early childhood centres. The survey identified the types of access and use of computers by preschool children. It was found that the children of the respondents had significant access to computers in the home (85%) and were skilled in many facets of computer use. Computers were used for a range of activities, some educational and others recreational. Gender differences in computer use were also noted. The study highlights the changing clientele of early childhood settings and the implications for practice in a field where computer technology is often seen as the antithesis of good practice.
Chapter
Development literature emphasizes the importance of parental involvement in both care and play activities, to build secure relationships. The chapter presents five case studies of novel designs that employ diverse mobile technologies to provide provide parents and children with new opportunities to share experiences and have fun together while being physically separated. The Virtual Box employs location sensing and a mobile PDA device to extend a familiar hide-and-seek game to a digital platform that a parent and child can use to playfully interact while apart. The aim of the Virtual Box is to understand and support child/parent intimacy. The Collage is a technology for collecting, displaying, and interacting with a family's image and text communications. It uses mobile camera phones as an input device and a touch screen for synchronous interaction between distributed family members. It was created to investigate playful activities between grandparents and their grandchildren but was also significant in child/parent interaction. eKISS is a system designed to support communication between children and parents while separated by automatically sharing pictures captured with a camera phone throughout the day. eMutts is an early prototype that consists of a series of wearable sensor toys and an online interface to address the issues of awareness on the part of the parent and encourage self-disclosure on the part of the child. Globetoddler is a prototype of a toy-to-mobile, always-on multimedia experience designed to support contact between a preschool child and a traveling parent.